On predicting the future: Thoughts after reading 2084.

2084Science fiction shouldn’t necessarily be about predicting the future. First and foremost, it should be about telling a story. With interesting characters. In science fiction, there is a usually some form of social commentary or maybe a warning. If we as a society travel down path a. them the future may well look like scenario b. Some science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to push technology and knowledge in certain directions. It is therefore impossible to tell whether any given prediction is indeed that, or an inspiration. So we come to 2084.

Inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949), 2084 is a Kickstarted book of short stories published by Unsung. Declaration of interest: you’ll find my name in the back as I contributed and received the paperback edition. According to Unsung:

“Fifteen predictions, seventy years in the future. By 2084 the world we know is gone. These are stories from our world seven decades later.

In 1948 George Orwell looked at the world around him and his response was 1984, now a classic dystopian novel. Here fifteen writers asked themselves the same question as Orwell did – where are we going, and what is our future?”

I am a fan of both Nineteen Eighty-Four specifically, and dystopias in general, so there is a lot of appeal in the ideas of 2084, which is why I contributed. I think it is important that great writers embrace a particular vision. I’m just a tad uncomfortable with the term ‘prediction’. And there are some great writers and some terrific stories on display here.

So what do we have?

The collection gets off to a cracking start with the brilliant Dave Hutchinson. Each story takes a different view of the future, and in just about every case, extrapolates from our world today:

Babylon by Dave Hutchinson tackles immigration from war-torn nations, and the search for a new world. Europe’s borders are sealed up. Maybe Brexit is just the beginning?

Here comes the flood by Desirina Boskovich is about climate change and environmentalism, with a touch of reality TV thrown in for fun. There is a sub-plot about over-population too.

Fly away, Peter from Ian Hocking is set in a Germanic future and is a comment on education, discipline and control. It has an unsettling climax that won’t be for everyone.

A good citizen from Anne Charnock takes the ideas of democracy, reality TV and referenda to extremes, and is perhaps the closest in tone to Orwell.

The Ending Market by E.J. Swift (perhaps my favourite of the stories on show here) is a horrific vision of endangered species and capitalism. A natural progression of the free-market economy where everything has a price.

Glitterati by Oliver Langmead is an odd little take about the obsessions of the beautiful elite, the powerful and the fashionable, with a particularly icky ending. Which I really enjoyed.

Room 149 by Jeff Noon is a suitably weird tale actually set 10 years after 2084. Like Hocking’s story, Noon’s is fairly Orwellian, as the title suggests. People are arrested for crimes against the state and ‘stored’, terminated or sent back to Earth.

Percepi from Courittia Newland examines the future of robots and ends with the inevitable rise of the machines. There has to be one, but this is the least successful story in the collection for me.

Degrees of elision by Cassandra Khaw has a prose style unlike anything else in the collection; and one I totally appreciate. Observe: truth is subjective and relationships are fragile. Life can be edited. Very Black Mirror.

The Infinite Eye from JP Smythe is all about surveillance and in a nod to Philip K Dick’s Minority Report sees drones and other tech assisting police in finding crimes that have not yet happened.

Saudade Minus One (S-1=) by Irenosen Okojie (btw, Saudade is a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament) features stillborn children brought to life by technology.

March, April, May by Malcolm Devlin is a great tale of defiance in a world dominated by a Facebook-type environment where everyone is monitored by their posts and habits. The modern filter-bubble gone to the nth degree. And how news is controlled by those in power. Damn those algorithms.

2084 Satoshi AD from Lavie Tidhar extrapolates bitcoin and it’s mysterious inventor into a branded future. Celebrity culture and media dominate life.

Uniquo from Aliya Whitely is the story of an augmented reality rollercoaster, and the power of dreams.

Shooting an episode by Christopher Priest, the final story in the collection, features the world of interactive gaming and extreme violence. Everyone is sheep. Again, reality TV is the big bad.

There isn’t really any duff stories in this collection, but none are outstanding. It is a solid and enjoyable (?) collection of short stories. One thing that stands out in this collection is there is very little that these 15 authors see as positive in our future. AIs and technology are out of control. Those in power keep those without down. Everyone is rated, policed and subjugated, often by their own actions and thoughts. It almost feels like there is no future.

Obviously, these stories were meant to reflect Orwell’s vision of the future. They are meant, as science fiction, to be predictions. But in the loosest sense possible. I can’t imagine for a second that Priest is actually predicting that we would happily watch a person being blown up in front of them, for entertainment, or Swift believes that humanity will end up buying the last Sumatran tiger for prestige. And if any of these futures comes true, for sure, we’re screwed.

George Sandison, editor of the collection, writes “There are warnings in this book – we would do well to heed them.” Indeed.

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Some thoughts on genre fiction and mental health depiction after reading Borderline by Mishell Baker

BorderlineScience fiction addresses almost every conceivable topic covering the human condition, from the obvious such as what it means to be human or are we as a species on a path to destruction via war or environmental impact, to evolution, consciousness, sexuality, religion, memory and almost everything else you can think of. Fantasy and horror are perhaps less concerned with deeper themes but of course, many works address ideas such as industrialisation, what is good or evil, racism and more. But they rarely cover, explicitly at least, mental health.

Of course, mental health is as difficult to define as genre fiction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the bible of such things, was first published in 1952 and unbelievably, included homosexuality. It was 130 pages long and had 106 mental disorders. The latest edition, from 2013, has 947 pages of definitions and descriptions. If you consider the many types of disorder (Neurodevelopmental, psychotic disorders, Bipolar conditions, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, eating disorders, gender dysphoria, sleep disorders and all the rest) I’d expect to be able to name dozens of genre books I’ve read that addresses these issues.

I started thinking about this subject after I read Borderline (2016) by Mishell Baker. It features a character called Millie who is suffering from borderline personality disorder after a failed suicide attempt. She is also now physically disabled. She exhibits unstable relationships with other people, unstable sense of self, and unstable emotions. Millie is headhunted from her treatment centre into the Arcadia Project. This covert organisation, being urban fantasy, is a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with what are generally known as fey. This is a typical innocent gets inducted into the so-called real world that contains magic (see the likes of Harry Potter, Rivers of London and The Magicians). It’s fairly enjoyable if unremarkable narratively, as Baker populates her novel with various mental disorders – it seems that those with these disorders are the best people to deal with magic. Baker doesn’t hold back on the effects and troubles of Millie’s disorder, which is what I think makes this novel stand out. The characterisation is enhanced because of the characters’ disorders.

Off the top of my head I wrote down (typed) all the fiction I’d read where mental health issues seemed to be explicit. I came up with Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, Breakfast of Champions, The Stars My Destination, A Scanner Darkly, and Oryx and Crake.

These novels feature:

  • an eccentric and grief-stricken scientist, and ‘creature’ suffering from isolation and trauma;
  • good and evil personalities;
  • narcissistic hedonism;
  • dissociative identity disorder;
  • madness;
  • deranged and delusional;
  • revenge fixation and stress-related disorder;
  • multiple identity and addiction;
  • unhealthy obsessions, and mad scientist.

I guess mad scientist is the most common concept in genre fiction, but I’m not sure that it is tackled seriously in most examples, but rather they are used as a cypher to create any given novel’s narrative MacGuffin (such as HG Wells’ Doctor Moreau).

What else is out there? What am I missing? And should genre fiction be embracing the issues of mental health. After all, in 2015, according to ICM Research, 30% of adults in the UK (over 18s) said that they have or previously had a mental health condition. [i]

I’m wondering about the mental health of ex-military personnel. How about the aging population? Gender identity issues in children. Self-harm? I’ve a personal interest in insomnia. I’d love some recommendations on topics of interest.

 

 

[i] Leading common mental health issues experienced over the past year in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2015. Statista. Accessed 13 September, 2017. Available from https://www.statista.com/statistics/505466/leading-mental-health-illnesses-united-kingdom-uk/.

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

CrosstalkConnie Willis is an exceptional genre writer. Her 17 novels and numerous awards testify as much. In Crosstalk she puts her considerable talents to the test in what is described on the cover as a sci-fi rom-com. Wait. For those put off by that tag, let’s examine the evidence.

Willis has written a story about communication. How we communicate and why. What is too much communication and when might it be a good idea to stop. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and everyone seems to have a smartphone – even those who probably shouldn’t! Willis doesn’t just concentrate on technology, but contrasts it with company gossip, emotional bonding, parent/child relationships and a plethora of human communications.

Briddey is a red-haired romantic lead, and Trent is the perfect catch. They work in a fictitious tech company, whose main rival is Apple. Intriguingly, the company pretty much runs on gossip; which is often much quicker that official communication channels. Nothing gets said without everyone knowing about it faster that speeding WhatsApp message. Briddey also has an intrusive and interfering extended family. With her pending engagement, her folks and her job, she sifts through dozens of messages and missed calls every day. As do we all, or we soon will. We’re pretty much contactable 24/7 these days. Most of us multi-device.

But then there’s CB Swartz. He’s the smart one in Briddey’s company. The one who spends his time in a scruffy basement lab, dressed in even scruffier clothes; unkempt, unshaven, unloved.

When Briddey and Trent have their procedure (a MacGuffin called EED that allows emotionally connected individuals to experience each other’s emotions), something appears to go wrong. Of course it does. Briddey needs to keep secrets and tell lies. How could Crosstalk be anything other than a farce? The opening chapters are not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but Willis nails the humour as Briddey tries to keep her secrets, and her friends, family and colleagues are all giving her advice. What makes this more than just a sci-fi rom-com or even a farce is the cutting satire. And she makes it so readable.

You immediately ‘get’ all the characters, siding quickly with Briddey (who just wants a normal, happy relationship with Trent) and CB (who just wants [spoiler]). The narrative is from Briddey’s point-of-view which occasionally drives the plot along – a tad meta. Which I like. The pace of the plot never lets up as you turn page after page, getting caught up in Briddey’s apparent panic – imagine Black Mirror and the Buffy episode Earshot colliding and you’ll get the picture. Willis ends each chapter (and there are 36 of them) with a genuine cliff-hanger that moves the story on. There are occasional pop culture references (Avengers movies and Brad Pitt for example) that cleverly grounds the story. Even the romance(s) are believable.

My only criticism of the plot is that towards the end, Willis is so bogged down in the detail of how all the plot strands, theories, conspiracies and relationships all come together, it loses momentum. And it all falls together a tad too conveniently. But maybe that’s a clever device too? Too much communication from Willis to hammer home the point of this science fiction story? As Briddey herself thinks: “There is entirely too much communicating going on”. However, later, CB states that books are a refuge. Indeed. Crosstalk is certainly a great place to spend some time with.

 

Original version published here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-crosstalk/

 

The Underground Railroad vs Ninefox Gambit

Underground RailroadA few weeks ago the critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad won the Arthur C Clarke award and I wondered why? I wondered if I should read it. Is it genre fiction? I pondered. It was pointed out to me in my comments section that was alternative history, which has a long and prestigious relationship with science fiction. Meanwhile, I was about to pick up one of the other shortlisted novels: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. It occurred to me that these books were poles apart and I wondered what they were doing on the same award shortlist. So I picked up a copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and read them contemporaneously. A few chapters of one, and a few chapters of the other.

Ninefox Gambit is the story of Kel Cheris in the far future. Cheris is a military tactician, who is ‘paired’ up with a mad, dead general who never lost a fight but slaughtered his own troops. Cheris is chosen to take back a fortress in space, which has fallen into heresy. Something called Calendrical Heresy.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She has a brutal life (shunned even by her own kind), but escapes her owner with fellow slave Caesar on the underground railroad – a system of tunnels and trains and station agents and safehouses run by abolitionists. She is chased by slave catcher Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s powerful and shocking novel is based on a truism. There was an underground railroad during the period of slavery in the US, but it was a metaphor: it was only safehouses and secret routes. So why is this genre fiction? And what does it have to do with Ninefox Gambit?

I really struggled with the latter, despite allegedly being a fan of science fiction. Although I’ve tended to shy away from hard military science fiction. With one or two exceptions, of course (Ender’s Game, for example). For the most part, Yoon Ha Lee’s book left me cold. I just couldn’t like the characters or care about the universe they lived in. Mostly because it, and I respect it for this, dives into a new universe without much explanation. There are so many concepts and there is so much unfamiliar terminology that it made my brain hurt: calendrical rot; formation instinct; amputation weapons; Hexarchate, and more. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but I just found it too difficult to relate to any of the characters, mostly because I was trying to work out if any of it made sense. I’m still not sure if it did, having finished the book. Others have reviewed Ninefox Gambit and explained it in ways I didn’t quite see myself. Now I’m not dumb (I’ve two post-graduate qualifications), but I just didn’t see what Yoon Ha Lee’s book was about at first. It seemed to be about military tactics and people’s relationships with technology, but I couldn’t work out if it was anti-war, for example, even tho’ there are clear horrors described. This is as science fiction as stories come. It is space ships and aliens (or maybe post-humans, I’m not sure) and technology and metaphor and unpronounceable names.

I thoroughly enjoyed Whitehead’s story. Although enjoyed is probably not the correct description. But it was mostly because Cora is a terrific character. And boy does Whitehead not hold back on the horrors the age. His characters really suffer. They are raped, mutilated, whipped, humiliated and degraded. And sometimes, there is a slave-on-slave crime. When Cora and Caesar escape, they find the underground railroad that takes them on a series of journeys where Cora faces her past and her future. They are separated. People who protect Cora suffer. She is eventually captured by Ridgeway but again, finds herself free. There is nothing in this book that is fantastical (although for me, how one human can treat another human as Whitehead describes is almost beyond belief – if not for the news I witness today) or even magical realism. I wondered if it might be a little steampunk, with the railway being some unexplained technology that shouldn’t exist. But no. It is certainly not traditional science fiction.

But then is Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? There is nothing science fiction about the actual plot of that classic, other than the setting. However, it does address the concept of multiple universes. I love that book. I’ve not read a lot of alternative histories, so beyond this, I can’t comment.

What do these books have in common, then, if anything? Imagination of the authors in telling their particular story. But that could be said about any work of fiction. I’ve pondered this a little and three words come to mind: fear, power, numbers.

Cheris exhibits fear, as does Cora. Power and who has it is a major theme. In Whitehead’s novel, some states have more black slaves than white free folk, but it is the power the whites have over the blacks that is key. Which is also a numbers game. And in Ninefox Gambit, society is based on mathematical concepts and the calendar. The rulers use the calendar to keep the little people in line. So is theme what makes something science fiction? I’ve always said no. I’ve always said science fiction needs to have some rational difference to it that isn’t in our world (fantasy’s differences don’t need to be rational or even an internal logic). Maybe I’m wrong?

Both books are written with conviction and brilliance, but in contrasting styles. I’ll pick the same page from both books:

Ninefox Gambit:Tell me about the class 22-5 mothdrives. If the Pale Fracture weren’t a calendrical dead zone, they would almost be good enough to fuel a whole new wave of expansion.”

The Underground Railroad: Ultimately, the pigs did them in. They were following the rut of a hog trail when the white men rushed from the trees.”

They both use language as a powerful force, but the former is often incomprehensible, the latter is beautifully shocking. The shocks in Ninefox are distant (such as the continued reference to the dead general slaughtering his own troops), while in Underground they are powerfully personal, such as Cora’s time in the Hob, or the injuries slaves suffer.

Ninefox GambitNinefox Gambit shows me clearly that I’m not a fan of this kind of fiction, no matter how brilliantly it is written. Finer minds than mine seem to like it. Award winning writer Abigail Nussbaum, for one, seems to get it (read her review of the sequel here). Had Whitehead not won the Clarke Award, I’d never have picked it up (I’d previously found his Zone One zombie novel tedious beyond belief). But it’s an excellent book, fully deserving of its success. In today’s world, it has a scary prescience, of course.

I’m still not convinced it should be classed as genre or speculative fiction, even if it is alt-history. At best, The Underground Railroad is set in a universe an nth of a fraction from ours. Is that enough? Some would say of course. There is a huge amount of truth in the book, but the exact same story could have been told with the railroad as the historically accurate metaphor it is. Whatever the shelf these books belong on, only a few will enjoy Ninefox Gambit, if they can figure out what’s going on. There might be truth in it, but you need to dig hard and have patience. Few might say that they actually enjoy The Underground Railroad – far too brutal for enjoyment – but it is the far superior read.

Should I read the Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Underground Railroad?

For the last 10 years or so I’ve been reading all, or at least most of, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist books. In recent times, I’ve added the BFSA and Kitschies shortlists to my reading piles. Over the past couple of years, my interest in reading most of the lists has waned, as my tastes and priorities have evolved. I wittered on a bit about this in May.

Last week, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was announced as this year’s winner. So congrats to Whitehead! It’s also won a whole bunch of other stuff and some critical acclaim. Clearly, it is a work of some significance. Is it science fiction? Is it genre? Is it for me? I’m not sure. The write up of the award in the Guardian explains why it is classed as such: the real underground railway used by slaves was a collection of safe houses – Whitehead reimagines it as an actual underground railroad. I do like magic realism and more importantly, genre-defying speculative fiction.

I read Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One and found it dull. Years later, I couldn’t tell you want happened in the book. Not a clue. I’ve been told his other books are works of genius, especially his debut: The Intuitionist.

The other shortlisted books in the Clarke Award were:

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
  • After Atlas – Emma Newman
  • Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan
  • Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the Chambers, and thought the Sullivan was so-so. Far from her best. Ninefox Gambit is on my pile and will be read within the next few weeks. Tidhar’s book is on my radar and I might get round to reading After Atlas at some point. But can you compare all these traditional science fiction novels (yes, I know Sullivan’s book has angels in, but still…) to Whitehead’s tale of slavery. Well, I’m not so sure, but having not read it, I can’t really say.

I wonder if its inclusion is political.

Still, I’ve added The Underground Railroad to my wish list and I’ll read it later in the year. When the hype has died down a bit.

I’ve very sad that All the Birds in the Sky from Charlie Jane Anders hasn’t had the recognition I think it deserves. I’m hoping the shortlists in 2018 will capture my imagination once again.

The Rift by Nina Allan

The RiftIt’s always exciting to discover a genre voice with a different perspective. I read Nina Allan’s 2014 debut The Race last year which I thought had huge potential. On completion of her new novel The Rift I knew that potential had already been reached. Allan, of course, isn’t new to the scene, being critically acclaimed for her short stories. Indeed, The Race has a short story structure to it. So with The Rift, Allan presents her most complete long form fiction. And boy is it worth the wait.

The Rift begins with an unusually disturbing aside before we’re properly introduced to the life of teenager sisters Selena and Julie. But it’s not long before Julie disappears. And returns again to tell her story. The plot doesn’t go much further than that, but then this isn’t really a story of other planets or the search for missing people, but it’s a story of truths and emotions. Most of the novel is Selena’s story from the third person. The middle section is Julie telling Selena about what happened to her all those years ago, life on the planet she went to, and other details about her life that Selena didn’t know about.

Of course, this is a story about the divide between adolescent sisters and how life diverges when they are no longer close. It is a story about a family coming apart. Selena is sure that the Julie of now is her missing sister. Their mother is not so sure, while their Dad, who suffered from terrible grief and obsessions after that fateful day, is no longer around. Allan uses a wide range of writing styles and story-telling techniques to play with the reader’s perceptions. The story is interspersed with letters, police and newspaper reports, fiction and non-fiction from Julie’s planet (a nice concise way of world-building that doesn’t detract from the human stories), interviews and other devices. All these ideas plant various ideas of what may or may not have happened to Julie.

So, is Julie telling the truth? Is Nina Allan telling the truth? Does it matter? I’m convinced that there are clues laid about, but they may just be coincidences – deliberately so. Mis-directions if you will. Names on the planet and on Earth have similarities (Lila and Lisa for example). Meanwhile, not long after a mention of Marillion’s 1980s hit Kayleigh we learn that there is a place called Marillienseet and a character called Cally. Allan even alludes to her own playfulness: “the written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable…”

There is a term used in psychiatry; confabulation. It is, essentially, the ability to mis-remember or distort our own memories to fit within the truths of our own existence. The Rift could be said to be Julie’s confabulation as a reaction to what really happened to her, or she might have really spent many years on another planet. Allan doesn’t hand you answers on a plate. Or at all. What is reality and does it have any significance other than how we deal with the relationships in our lives?

Allan’s writing is so engaging. With everything that is happening between the characters you come to enjoy spending time with them. With all the puzzles that surround the book, Allan never fails the reader. She uses small details and a plethora of pop culture references to ground the story. There isn’t any requirement for pages of complex world-building. Is The Rift science fiction, or even genre? Each reader will have to be their own judge of that. All the same, this is a book that gives the reader so much to think about and so much to enjoy, it should be read by any audience. Allan’s voice is a triumph of mind and writing and imagination.

This review was originally published on the Geek Syndicate website here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-the-rift-by-nina-allan/

Into the Unknown – A Science Fiction exhibition at The Barbican, London.

20170722_134841Is a room full of awesome geeky stuff an exhibition (interesting or otherwise), or just a room full of awesome geeky stuff? I felt it was time to find some new geek inspiration, so I took myself along to the brutalist maze that is The Barbican on a wet and miserable London afternoon. Into the Unknown is billed as “A journey through science fiction” and is meant to be aimed at fans and novices alike.

When I handed over just short of 15 of your English Pounds, I was expecting to be taken on a journey. A story, if you will, of the history of science fiction. Why it resonates? How it came about? What it means to society now? What made Shelley write Frankenstein (although this I do know, of course) to why Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is so important today, as the success of the awesome TV series testifies?

What I got when I passed through the darkened entry doors was a room full of cool geeky science fiction stuff, with a few short plaques of description (often placed after, or to the side of the specific exhibit). There were several cases of books on a theme – proto-science fiction, dystopia, that sort of common grouping – which ranged from a few rare editions to foreign editions to recent publications but without an attached story to them, or why the curator chose them in particular. They did have some audio taken from the books for those unfamiliar. I saw no-one listening…There was plenty of art work (from movie story boards to cities-of-the-future originals), comic books, advertising and film posters, movie props (miniatures and models, costumers), film scripts and screens showing oldy chosen random short film clips. For those with time and patience to sit with headphones on, there was a number of short films to watch. One in particular caught my attention, as it was written by a computer. It was mostly tosh, but interesting in a way.

The exhibit, then, did have some very nice pieces. The journey began with the likes of Jules Verne and Ray Harryhausen. Some of his early sketches are simply awesome. Check out these drawings:

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They also showed some of his models, and showed them next to models used in the Jurassic Park films.

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There was Darth Vader’s actual helmet, alien masks from Stargate, Giger’s drawings (with comedy annotations) from Alien 3, robots from AI and the Lost in Space TV show; ships, props and models from the likes of Fantastic Voyage and Land of the Giants and Red Dwarf and eXistence. There was the script from 2001 with its original title crossed out and the familiar one written in by hand. There was plenty of story boards and concept art, from Empire Strikes Back to Elysium. My favourite pieces were the space suits as worn by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, Sam Rockwell in Moon and John Hurt in Alien. Nice. No, to be fair, it was more than nice. Quite exciting, truth be told.

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For me, there were too many pictures and prints from posters and adverts, especially the cities-of-the-future motif. And way too many random film clips. And that Wonder Woman thing was awful. The book displays were the most disappointing. Just books with the occasional manuscript. Although I was pleased to see many features in my science fiction challenge (Herland, News from Nowhere, The Last Man, The Mummy, and a whole lot more.) But there was no story. No process. And very little interaction. You could play a part in a simulation from the film The Martian, but other than watching and listening throughout the room, that was it.

20170722_134144Outside the main exhibition, there were several short films to watch. I didn’t bother. A set of ‘media pods’ had games on them, but there were queues, so again I passed. I did venture down to the ‘Pit’ to see the pretty if bewildering art installation called In the Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross. A series of plastic monoliths with patterned holes surrounded a robot art with a light at the end. The movement of the robot arm cast a variety of shadows in the darkened room, which looked cool but meant little, and certainly not whatever pretentious twaddle the plaque described. Finally, at the exit to the Barbican, a series of screens promised an edited version of a Black Mirror episode from the first season. Which lasted about a minute before looping. Nothing more than a trailer. As brutalist architecture, the Barbican is an eerie, mystifying maze of a place, which doesn’t help the mood of the visitor looking around the exhibition.

I can’t help feeling that Patrick Gyger, who curated Into the Unknown isn’t the world’s biggest science fiction fan. Curation is stretching it too. He’s stuck a bunch of very cool stuff (and don’t get me wrong, I was excited to see art from Harryhausen and props from Alien and Star Wars and Star Trek and one or too nice early book editions) but for 15 quid, I’d expect a whole lot more. Into the Unknown is a missed opportunity to really explore science fiction. It was a chance to wow fans and educate the novice. Which is a shame. And an expensive one.

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The room is open until Sept 1. For more info, see https://www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/

Interview with Robert Eggleton, the author of Rarity from the Hollow

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction filled with tragedy, comedy and satire. A Children’s Story. For Adults.

1 Rarity Front Cover WEB (2)

Lacy Dawn’s father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in the hollow is hard. She has one advantage — an android was inserted into her life and is working with her to cure her parents. But, he wants something in exchange. It’s up to her to save the Universe. Lacy Dawn doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her family and friends come first.

I asked Robert about this project via email. The interview is presented in full below.

 

 

 

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

Thank you, Ian, for inviting me to tell your readers a little about myself and my debut novel, Rarity from the Hollow.

Could you begin by describing this project: the book – Rarity from the Hollow – and why you wrote it?

Sure. Rarity from the Hollow is an adult literary science fiction adventure filled with tragedy, comedy, and satire. Lacy Dawn begins the story as the eleven year old protagonist. Her father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in The Hollow is hard, but she has one advantage – she’s been befriended by a semi-organic, semi-robot who works with her to cure her parents. He wants something in exchange, though. It’s up to Lacy Dawn to save the Universe.

To prepare Lacy for her coming task, she is being schooled daily on every known subject via direct downloads into her brain. Her powers gain strength as she comes to grip with the reality that she is not just a kid, that she is many thousands of years old and much more mature than her android boyfriend for when she’s old enough to have one. Some of the courses tell her how to apply magic to resolve everyday problems much more pressing to her than a universe in big trouble, like those at home and at school. She doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her own family and friends come first.

Once her parents have regained a semblance of mental health, Lacy Dawn assembles her team: her best friend’s ghost, annoyingly pessimistic as always; her formerly mistreated mutt, the only one with enough empathy skills to communicate directly with the enemy; her now employable father who has cut way down on drinking beer and has resumed his status as the best auto trader in the Hollow; a stoner neighbour who is highly skilled in business transactions and who got so rich from selling marijuana that he moved away from big city life because it would be better for his Bipolar Disorder; and a mother with greatly improved self-esteem now that she has new teeth and a G.E.D.

With a great team like that, what could go wrong? It’s simple, save the Universe and Lacy can get back to the sixth grade where life’s real challenges are faced by most kids. But no, entrenched management of any organization, including the universe, never makes anything that simple. Will Lacy Dawn’s predisposition, education, and magic be enough for her to save the Universe, Earth, and, most importantly, protect her own family?

The content of Rarity from the Hollow addresses pressing social issues in our society, like child maltreatment and poverty, while taking readers on a wild ride to an alien shopping mall where getting the best deals affect survival of planets. Written in colloquial Appalachian voice, it is a children’s story for adults, not for the prudish, faint of heart, or easily offended.

Rarity from the Hollow was the first, perhaps the only, science fiction adventure to specifically predict the rise of Donald Trump to political power — parody with no political advocacy one side or any other. Readers find out how Lacy Dawn convinced Mr. Rump (Bernie Sanders) to help talk Mr. Prump (Donald Trump) into saving the universe. The political allegory includes pressing issues that are being debated today, including illegal immigration and the refuge crisis; extreme capitalism / consumerism vs. domestic spending for social supports; sexual harassment…. Part of the negotiations in the story occur in the only high rise on planet Shptiludrp (Shop Until You Drop), a giant shopping mall and the center of economic governance, now easily identifiable as Trump Tower.

I’m a retired children’s psychotherapist. Most of my writing has been nonfiction in the field of child welfare. After over forty years in the field, I returned to writing fiction, in large part, as a means of raising funds for the prevention of child maltreatment. Half of author proceeds are donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia. http://www.childhswv.org/

Many will find the subject matter of child maltreatment and sexual abuse daunting and uncomfortable – indeed I didn’t want to read the book – even though the proceeds support the prevention of child maltreatment. Why did you decide to address this issue in fiction?

Beginning with having read Charles Dickens when I was a teen, I’ve read a lot of books that featured child victimization. I even went to see the box office hit Precious when it came out in 2009. The movie was based on a book, Push by Sapphire, that I’d read. One thing that all of these great works had in common was that they were so depressing that their audiences didn’t want to think about the messages after the last page was turned. My goal was to write a story that sensitized readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment through a comedic and satiric adventure – something that was fun to read and, because of that, might influence people to want to do something to help prevent child maltreatment. The early tragedy in Rarity from the Hollow feeds and amplifies subsequent comedy and satire.

I agree that some prospective readers could find the topics of child maltreatment in fiction daunting. That’s why I especially welcome the opportunity that you provided, Ian, to describe the story beyond words that trigger. Perhaps it sounds weird, but as I wrote my novel I imagined a therapeutic impact – that those of us who had experienced child maltreatment benefiting from having read Rarity from the Hollow. That’s a giant target audience. So, the story had to be hopeful, to inspire. While prevalence rate is difficult to come up with and there is no estimate of how many read novels, approximately one quarter of all adults believe that they were maltreated as children – physically, sexually, or psychologically. Internationally, forty million children are abused each year: http://arkofhopeforchildren.org/child-abuse/child-abuse-statistics-info.

So far, eight of ninety-eight independent book blog reviewers have privately disclosed to me that they were victims of childhood maltreatment and that they had benefited having read my story. One of these reviewers publicly disclosed: “…soon I found myself immersed in the bizarre world… weeping for the victim and standing up to the oppressor…solace and healing in the power of love, laughing at the often comical thoughts… marveling at ancient alien encounters… As a rape survivor… found myself relating easily to Lacy Dawn… style of writing which I would describe as beautifully honest. Rarity from the Hollow is different from anything I have ever read, and in today’s world of cookie-cutter cloned books, that’s pretty refreshing… whimsical and endearing world of Appalachian Science Fiction, taking you on a wild ride you won’t soon forget….” http://kyliejude.com/2015/11/book-review-rarity-from-the-hollow/

Here’s another very touching review of Rarity from the Hollow that included public disclosure of child maltreatment by a book blogger: “…I enjoyed the book so much that a few months after reading it I just picked it up again…reminded me of stuff in the past but somehow it also made me feel less alone. It made me realize that there are so many children in this world getting abused, going through the stuff I have been through…. The fact that there’s sci-fi/fantasy in it (such as genderless alien DotCom) kinda makes the book easier to read, less heavy on some moments… I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s 18+ but do keep in mind it’s a very heavy book to read yet so worth it.” https://booksoverhumans.com/…/rarity-from-the-hallow-by-ro…/

While sticking close to the mission of sensitizing readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment, I wanted to produce a story that readers would enjoy: “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only instead of the earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Lacy Dawn must…The author has managed to do what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse, and written about them with tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…Eggleton sucks you into the Hollow, dunks you in the creek, rolls you in the mud, and splays you in the sun to dry off. Tucked between the folds of humor are some profound observations on human nature and modern society that you have to read to appreciate…it’s a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.http://awesomeindies.net/ai-approved-review-of-rarity-from-the-holly-by-robert-eggleton/

“…Full of cranky characters and crazy situations, Rarity From the Hollow sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved… Robert Eggleton is a brilliant writer whose work is better read on several levels. I appreciated this story on all of them.” https://readersfavorite.com/book-review/rarity-from-the-hollow

With your background as a mental health psychotherapist, was it easy to come up with a realistic plot? Can you describe the process of writing this story?

While some book reviewers have posted that Rarity from the Hollow is wildly imaginative, a lot of it is more realistic than not. The characters are based on real-life people that I’ve met over the years. The flow of the story was modeled after a mental health treatment episode: difficult to face in early chapters similar to how disclosures can be difficult to make before treatment relationships are firmly established, more cathartic in middle chapters, and almost silly in final chapters as we accept that we live in the present and that past demons do not control our lives.

A couple of the wildest elements of the story are more reality-based than appears on the surface. For example, the fantastical means employed by the alien in my story to treat the parents for their mental health concerns was based on today’s medical reality. In the beginning of Rarity from the Hollow, Dwayne, the abusive father was a war damaged Vet experiencing anger outbursts and night terrors. The mother was a downtrodden victim of domestic violence who had lost hope of ever getting her G.E.D. or driver’s license, or of protecting her daughter. Diagnosis and treatment of these concerns affecting the parents, as representative of many similarly situated, was based on emerging technologies presented at the 2015 World Medical Innovation Forum: https://worldmedicalinnovation.org/ . Yes, in real life, like the android performed in my story, patients have been hooked up to computer technology for noninvasive medial diagnosis and treatment, and the practice will likely grow as this science matures.

Exciting research was presented that may one day revolutionize psychiatric treatment: (1) smart brain prosthetics, wireless devises used to relieve depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder…neural engineering to manipulate brain signals; (2) sophisticated imaging systems that are minimally invasive to brain circuitry for diagnosis (3) and, healing the brain with neuromodulation and electroceuticals to treat depression and schizophrenia. http://hitconsultant.net/2015/04/30/tech-revolutionize-neurological-psychiatric-care/

Also, now that Donald Trump has become a household name world-wide, the cockroach infestation used as a metaphor of immigration issues and for the refugee crisis in Rarity from the Hollow no longer feels so silly. Several European commentators have had articles recently published in magazines that have called migrants and the increase in immigrants in some countries a cockroach infestation. The U.N. reacted to this comparison: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/katie-hopkins-migrant-cockroaches-column-resembles-pro-genocide-propaganda-says-the-un-10201959.html

Don’t misunderstand. I appreciate the compliments about Rarity from the Hollow by book reviewers who have found it unique and imaginative, but actually all that I did was watch a little television and project a little bit. Mr. Prump in my story was a projection of Donald Trump based on the TV show, The Apprentice. The counterpart, Mr. Rump, was based on my understanding of positions held by Bernie Sanders as I wrote the story.

You describe Rarity from the Hollow as social science fiction. Why choose the science fiction genre to address the issue of child maltreatment?

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction. I write adult fiction, not because of its sexual or violent content, although there may be a little here or there, less than in many YA novels, but because the themes, especially the satire, comedy, and social commentary, are for grown-ups. To me, the term literary refers to the type of story that doesn’t end after the last page of a novel has been read. I admire the writing of Charles Dickens in this regard. He felt that a novel should do more than merely entertain.

The term science fiction is well known and has two broad categories: hard and soft. In the 1970s, Ursula K. Le Guin coined the term “social science fiction” and Rarity from the Hollow may fall within that subgenre better than any other. The science fiction is used as a backdrop in the story. It is not hard science fiction that has a lot of technical details, but it is also not convoluted with lineage and unusual names for characters the way that some soft science fiction and fantasy books employ. It is written in colloquial adolescent voice comparable to The Color Purple.

I selected the science fiction backdrop for Rarity from the Hollow because it was the best fit by process of elimination. The novel also has elements of horror, romance…. In today’s reality the systems in place to help maltreated children are woefully inadequate. I felt that the literary, biographical, nonfiction genres wouldn’t work because the story would have been so depressing that only the most determined would have finished it.

I felt that the story had to be hopeful. I wanted it to inspire survivors of child maltreatment toward competitiveness within our existing economic structures, instead of folks using past victimization as an excuse for inactivity. I didn’t think that anybody would bite on the theme of a knight on a white stallion galloping off a hillside to swoop victims into safety, like in the traditional romance genre.  That almost never actually happens in real life, so that genre was too unrealistic as the primary. There was already enough horror in the story, so that genre was out too. What could be more horrific than child abuse?

The protagonist and her traumatized teammates needed fantastical elements to achieve empowerment. But, as in life, one cannot overcome barriers to the pursuit of happiness by simply imagining them away. That’s where the science fiction came into play. It provided a power source. I tied the science fiction to Capitalism because in today’s reality it will take significant financial investment by benefactors to significantly improve the welfare of children in the world.

Both satire and science fiction tend to have dedicated and loyal fan-bases. Did you want to target them specifically with this story?

As you know, Rarity from the Hollow is my debut novel. Honestly, and I’m learning, but I was such a novice that my sole goal was to produce a good book. I didn’t actually consider target audiences as I wrote it. I wasn’t even confident that my novel would get published. However, I’m an old hippie and in the back of my mind was a comic: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Did you find it hard to write comedy around the seriousness of the message you wanted to deliver?

No, writing comes easy for me, even when the topic is serious. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this novel – to share the truth. While I admire many great works, too many to mention, that have addressed child victimization in fiction, the representations in have been partial. In my experience, most maltreated children object to the “poor, pitiful me” characterization of them during their interactions with others. Survivors of childhood maltreatment are much more than victims. We laugh, as well as, cry, joke around as well as, reflect…. While victimization is certainly correlated with mental and physical ills in life, the most dominant characteristic of it is probably resiliency.   

Kevin Patrick Mahoney, editor of the site, Authortrek, has said that the story was, “…not for the faint hearted or easily offended….” If you’re trying to raise both awareness and money for the cause, why risk offending an audience?

Mr. Mahoney reviewed an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Rarity from the Hollow. At that time, the book did not have the first two introductory chapters for the purpose of back story. It began with the harshest chapter in the book, the only scene with any violence (a bloody lip), but it is a scene of domestic violence that has deep emotional content. He felt that this scene was too much as the first chapter and other than that I can’t say why he felt that my novel was not for the faint hearted or easily offended.

Of course, what one person finds offensive another may not. For example, I read a Young Adult novel as part of a Goodreads program. It had an attempted rape scene. What I found offensive, however, was that the female protagonist, later in the story, agrees to go to the School Prom with the guy who tried to rape her. Ugh!

There is nothing intentionally offensive in Rarity from the Hollow. I did not pull any punches or sugar coat the story either.  The language and concepts are mild in comparison to some of the stuff that kids have said during actual group therapy sessions that I have facilitated over the years. By child developmental stage, it is similar to the infamous early adolescent insult in E.T.: “penis breath.” It is tame in comparison to the content of the popular television series, South Park, which has been devoured by millions of teens. The “F Word” is used twice, and any other profanity is mild colloquialism true to the characters. There is no blood, guts, or gore. Nothing is killed. Nevertheless, I recommend consideration of Rarity from the Hollow as a novel for adults.

To open this interview, Ian, you mentioned that one of the characters in Rarity from the Hollow is a victim of sexual abuse. Faith (metaphor: Faith is not Dead), Lacy Dawn’s best friend, plays an annoying and comical ghost in the story. There are no scenes of her victimization, and it was treated with a flashback reference only. Actually, there are no sex scenes in the story at all, but there are sexual mentions in the form of puns.

Yes, the mission of the project is to increase sensitivity to the huge social problem of child maltreatment, but there are lots of ways to help needful kids. I’m hopeful that this interview contributes to the cause more so than whether it sells books.

How can you convince someone like me Rarity from the Hollow is worth reading?

I would not try to convince you, Ian, or any other your readers to do any more than to check out reviews of Rarity from the Hollow that have been uploaded to Amazon by independent book blog reviewers.

You also say that you think it is the only science fiction adventure to specifically predict the rise of Donald Trump to political power. Could you explain how this prediction unfolds in the story?

I’ve answered this question, in part, earlier during this interview. I will add that the long-standing feud between extreme capitalism and democratic socialism sometimes pits good people against each other, folks who have much more in common as human beings than that which divides them. So that I don’t spoil the story for potential readers, I’ll pass on explaining how Lacy Dawn opens the communication channels to solve the imminent danger to the universe, except to say that some families in real life have been torn apart by politics, similar to during the Civil War, and that I sometimes wish that Lacy Dawn was a real person.

What else do you want to say about the story?

For readers who are used to mainstream genre novels, I probably should point out that Rarity from the Hollow is written in third person omniscient narrator. “…The author has created a new narrative format, something I’ve never seen before, with a standard third-person narration, interspersed, lightly, with first-person asides. This makes me think of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude where internal and external dialogue are blended…partaking a little of the whimsical and nonsensical humor of Roger Zelazny or even Ron Goulart….” Jefferson Swycaffer, Affiliate, Fantasy Fan Federation. https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1QI8J7NME5GE/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B017REIA44 Some of the inner thoughts of characters are in italics following the speaker’s voice. For some busy book readers, this style could feel like it slows down the read and could result in head hopping if an attempt is made to read my novel too quickly, but for leisurely readers with time to contemplate it is a good fit. “…If it does not make you think, you are not really reading it….” http://www.onmykindle.net/2015/11/rarity-from-hollow.html

Rarity from the Hollow is published by a small press. Have you ever had any interest from a mainstream publisher?

No. Referred to as the Big Five, I believe that the doors to mainstream publishers have been chained shut for as long as I can remember. Ferlinghetti, a Beat Poet from the ‘60s warned society about the impact of conglomerate publishing. Given increased name recognition, I may look around for an agent for the next novel but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Just thinking more broadly, how do you write? Are you a meticulous planner? Can you only write in the evenings or in the mornings, that sort of thing?

I start with a general outline that I revise as scenes build. Now that I’m retired, I write anytime that I decide to do so and time of day doesn’t seem to affect productivity. I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and need to work on a scene before returning to bed, and that session may take longer than might be healthful to a good night’s sleep.

You’ve been described as writing “one-quarter turn beyond that of Kurt Vonnegut”. Is he an influence? Who are your influences?

The review of the ARC that compared the writing to Vonnegut was written by a prominent book critic, a person much more well-read than me. To read the review in its entirety: https://electricrev.net/2014/08/12/a-universe-on-the-edge/. Before this review, I’d never given it much thought – whether Vonnegut influenced my writing style. All that I can say is that the comparison was a high compliment. Other reviewers have made comparisons to other great writers. I love Vonnegut’s work.

As I’ve said, this is a difficult subject both to read but also to write about. Does it taint your dreams or even your day-to-day life?

In over forty years working with maltreated kids, looking back, there were only a couple of kids that caused me to shed a tear during psychotherapy. One girl noticed but didn’t say anything. The tear dripped onto a pad that I was using for notes. If you are concerned about whether you would find Rarity from the Hollow outside of your comfort zones, I sure don’t want to describe the content of that session. I’m going to let a book reviewer from Bulgaria answer this question for me because I feel the same way:

“…I enjoyed the book so much that a few months after reading it I just picked it up again…reminded me of stuff in the past but somehow it also made me feel less alone. It made me realize that there are so many children in this world getting abused, going through the stuff I have been through…. The fact that there’s sci-fi/fantasy in it (such as genderless alien DotCom) kinda makes the book easier to read, less heavy on some moments… I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s 18+ but do keep in mind it’s a very heavy book to read yet so worth it.” https://booksoverhumans.com/2017/05/21/rarity-from-the-hallow-by-robert-eggleton/

Thanks very much for your time. Final question, what next for this project?

Frankly, I feel that I’ve been stuck in self-promotion mode for so long that I will be relieved when I pick back up on the next adventure: Ivy. While maintaining a comical and satirical approach, with a social science fiction backdrop, the story deals with addiction to drugs, and asks: How Far Will a Child Go to Save a Parent from Addition?

Thank you, Ian, for the opportunity to tell your readers a little about myself and my debut novel. You asked some very meaningful questions.

About the author:

Robert Eggleton has served as a children’s advocate in an impoverished state for over forty years. Locally, he is best known for his nonfiction about children’s programs and issues, much of which was published by the West Virginia Supreme Court where he worked from1982 through 1997. Today, he is a retired children’s psychotherapist from the mental health center in Charleston, West Virginia, where he specialized in helping victims cope with and overcome maltreatment and other mental health concerns. Rarity from the Hollow is his debut novel. Its release followed publication of three short Lacy Dawn Adventures in magazines. Author proceeds support the prevention of child maltreatment.

“The most enjoyable science fiction novel I have read in years.” Temple Emmet Williams, Author, former editor for Reader’s Digest

“Quirky, profane, disturbing… In the space between a few lines we go from hardscrabble realism to pure sci-fi/fantasy. It’s quite a trip.”Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review

. “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse…tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…profound…a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.” — Awesome Indies (Gold Medal)

“…sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved…a brilliant writer.” —Readers’ Favorite (Gold Medal)

“Rarity from the Hollow is an original and interesting story of a backwoods girl who saves the Universe in her fashion. Not for the prudish.” —Piers Anthony, New York Times bestselling author

“…Good satire is hard to find and science fiction satire is even harder to find.” — The Baryon Review

 “…Brilliant satires such as this are genius works of literature in the same class as Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ I can picture American Lit professors sometime in the distant future placing this masterpiece on their reading list.” — Marcha’s Two-Cents Worth

 “…I know this all sounds pretty whack, and it is, but it’s also quite moving. Lacy Dawn and her supporting cast – even Brownie, the dog – are some of the most engaging characters I’ve run across in a novel in some time….”  — Danehy-Oakes, Critic whose book reviews often appear in the New York Review of Science Fiction

“… The author gives us much pause for thought as we read this uniquely crafted story about some real life situations handled in very unorthodox ways filled with humor, sarcasm, heartfelt situations and fun.” — Fran Lewis: Just Reviews/MJ Magazine

 Half of author proceeds are donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia for the prevention of child maltreatment

Purchase links:

https://www.amazon.com/Rarity-Hollow-Robert-Eggleton/dp/190713395X/

http://www.amazon.com/Rarity-Hollow-Robert-Eggleton-ebook/dp/B017REIA44

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rarity-from-the-hollow-robert-eggleton/1118420669#productInfoTabs

http://www.doghornpublishing.com/wordpress/books/rarity-from-the-hollow 

 Public Author Contacts:

http://www.lacydawnadventures.com

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32993259-rarity-from-the-hollow

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)

Dying EarthDescribed primarily as a fantasy, I wondered if Jack Vance’s 1950 curio The Dying Earth might find a place in this history of science fiction. After all, it is set way into Earth’s future as the planet is dying. It also occurred to me that it might be resonant to the third of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘law’: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That first appeared in 1973, so I wondered if this was, perhaps, an inspiration.

I read The Dying Earth as part of the Fantasy Masterworks collection Tales of the Dying Earth published by Gollancz in 2002.

I say curio because I was more than surprised to realise that The Dying Earth isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of loosely interconnected short stories all set in the far future where magic is real and humanity has fractured. Everyone knows that earth is on its last legs, and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of technology. Indeed, wizards and demons are the primary focus of life. Earth has moved on beyond anything recognisable, with a collection of weird and exotic creatures, and varieties of humanoid species.

There are 6 stories in the book. Some mention characters or locations from other stories, but other than that, they don’t really link in theme (maybe the search for lost knowledge at a push) or purpose; only setting. There is a vastly reduced population. Wizards are the predominant power, and are the only ones who understand magic (although maybe not its origins). Women appear mostly subservient to men. There are ruins of long lost civilisations. Magic is carried out in a very traditional method; practitioners memorise and recant long and complex spells, and use objects or relics for protection. There is a suggestion that magic originated in maths and sciences long forgotten.

Each story is mostly a disappointing adventure romp. Mizirian is a greedy wizard seeking more power. He desires to create artificial life in a vat, but lacks the skills or smarts to do so. Turjan also wants to create life and ventures to another realm to learn how. He is also the guardian of the books which contain the 100 spells which remain in human knowledge. Guyal is seeking a ‘Museum of Man’. He hopes to find all is answers from someone known as the Curator, an apparent font of all knowledge. Ulan is a young trainee wizard who wants to find ancient tablets containing lost knowledge. Liane is vain adventurer, seeking out women, who embarks on a mission to steal a tapestry from a witch. T’sais is an artificial woman created by Pandelume, but she can only see evil and ugliness in everything. She has a sister who is the perfect woman.

In each story, stuff happens for no apparent reason. For example, in Guyal’s tale, he meets a woman and an old man, and there is some weird interaction with music – the woman tries to get him to play the man’s instrument. But then the story swiftly moves on with almost no comment or effect on Guyal. There is some mention of technology of former times, but again, this is more about lost knowledge. Ulan comes across a ‘magic car’ but no-one knows how it works.

While in this future, women appear to be subservient to men, there are some female characters with agency. Other than T’sais (although of course she was created by a man), there is Lith in Liane’s story. She refuses to serve Liane when he demands it. So maybe Vance is showing some progressive political thought for the time?

There is no indication of the history of Earth; how we get to Vance’s future from our present. It makes me wonder why he set it on Earth at all. The fact that the planet is dying only gets a few passing mentions (and maybe an indication that the majority of humans left for other worlds eons ago). It certainly isn’t a primary concern of the inhabitants of these stories. If Vance had written these stories without referring to Earth at all, but on an unnamed dying planet, this would never have come under the science fiction radar for me.

There are hints and nods that magic and technology are linked but these ideas aren’t explored in full. Magic is magic, I think, not advanced technology. The lack of through-narrative and no real depth of meaning in the collection as a whole meant that I found it difficult to engage. However, Vance’s writing is full of interesting and imaginative diversions. Which seems to be the best thing to say about The Dying Earth. His use of fantasy language is full on, and the world he has built is complex and seems to have an internal logic. But I just don’t think it hits any science fiction notes. Hints and allusions are not sufficient for me, and I’m just not a fan of empty fantasy stories of wizards and thieves.

On reading Terry Pratchett: Mort

MortThere are some things in my life I thought I’d not get around to doing. Mostly cos I’m an obstreperous git. I have no intention of ever watching Back to the Future pt2 and pt3. Which is weird I know. The original Back to the Future is such a perfect gem I’m scared to watch the sequels. And I don’t like westerns…

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, mostly because of the hype surrounding them, but mainly because all the non-fantasy fans constantly reading them on the tube in London in the 1990s. I’m reminded of going to see David Cronenburg’s film Crash and overhearing some over-privileged type claiming that they hated Science Fiction. Sheesh. I’m sure they’re perfectly fine fantasy novels, but I really like Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic. Glasses…owl…boy wizard…just saying! And I have read Good Omens too, but I never thought I’d read a Terry Pratchett novel. Mostly because of this:

20170507_150418

I mean, look at those books he’s written!

But then Pratchett revealed he had Alzheimer’s and I read some interviews and learned a little of his politics and people saying we should all be more like Terry. Which I agreed with, broadly. Then he died and there was documentaries and thought-pieces to read and some welling up and after conversations with interested parties I decided I should have Pratchett a chance. Not that I intend to read all of his work, but some and I decided, after some consultation, to begin with Mort, the fourth novel published (in 1987) and the first in the Death series.

The plot of Mort isn’t particularly ground-breaking and most will know of it anyway. In a nutshell, Mort is taken as an apprentice by Death who wants a bit of a break. Death has an adopted daughter, Ysabell, and a man-servant type, Albert. This all takes place on Pratchett’s famed Discworld of course. Mort learns some of the ropes but when he gets to go out on his own, he decides not to take soul of Princess Keli but instead kills Keli’s would-be assassin. However, the universe isn’t too pleased with Mort and people start to forget the Princess. Mort has, in effect, created an alternative reality – the multiverse theory if you will – where Keli lives, but is being overridden by the original version, eventually killing Keli. Meanwhile, Death is experiencing life. Until he finds out what is going on with Mort. Some hi-jinks and some discovery follow, in which we learn the true nature of Albert and some of Ysabell’s emotions. It culminates in a duel between Mort and Death, a conflab with some gods and some happy ever afters.

What did I expect? I thought it would be a familiar romp with some cutting insight into society. Comic novels are rare. Good ones rarer still. Genre-wise, I’ve read all of Douglas Adams oeuvre many times over, most of the early work of Robert Rankin (and some of the later), all of Jasper Fforde and the occasional random Tom Holt. Which I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees. So I did get the familiarity – the running gags, the knowing one-liners, anachronistic or out-of-context metaphors and of course the winks and conversations with the reader. Even footnotes. Love a bit of metafiction, me. What I also got was a fun (but not laugh-out-loud) fantasy genre romp. What I would call the perfect morning train read. Not too taxing to quickly get into at 7.15 on a Tuesday morning, and that means I’m the only commuter smiling.

The things about the novel I liked the most wasn’t the characters, although they were fun, and Death of course being the funnest, and it wasn’t the plot. The descriptions of Discworld and how it works comes close. But… It was the sentences combined with Pratchett’s wonderfully crafted wordplay that I enjoyed the most. A perfect random example:

“It was a heavy sound, a dull sound, a sound that poured like sullen custard over a bright roly-poly pudding of the soul.”

What I didn’t get was anything particularly deep, cutting or insightful. I wonder if this might come in the later novels? I did enjoy reading Mort but that’s as far as it goes. I don’t think I’m gonna be a huge Pratchett fan but I will read more on occasion, especially these gorgeous hardback editions. Nice things to have. So, which of Pratchett’s novels should I read next?