And the winner is…

Congratulations to Adrian Tchaikovsky for winning the 2015 Clarke Award for Children of Time, announced on 24 August 2016. Well done also to N. K. Jemisin for Hugo Best Novel success for The Fifth Season.

Now these winners have been announced (along with Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings -BSFA winner, The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood which won the Kitschies Red Tentacle and Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson, debut novel winner of the Kitschies Golden Tentacle), I can reveal the Forgottengeekmetaawardforbooks, after my shortlist was announced last week:

  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

And the winner of the inaugural Forgottengeekmetaawardforbooks is….

  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts
  • The Thing Itself

For my review, see: https://theforgottengeek.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/the-thing-itself-by-adam-roberts/

 

ForgottenGeekMetaAwardForBooks Shortlist Announced!

With a week to go before the Clarke Award is announced it is time to reveal my inaugural major SFF meta shortlist. First, the nominations:

meKitschies Golden Tentacle:

  • The Shore by Sara Taylor
  • Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
  • The Night Clock by Paul Meloy
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

Kitschies Red Tentacle:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection,by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

BSFA:

  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett
  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
  • Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Clarke Award:

  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Way Down Dark by JP Smythe
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Hugos:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik

So I’ve NOT read: Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson; Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie; The Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher; Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett; The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken (which I still hope to read at some point); and Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett.

So, and fanfare, drumroll and other such musical precursors, here is my top 7:

  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

What will be my book of the year? Find out next week!

Now, can someone make me an award?

Minerva Century by James E. Parsons

Minerva CenturyIn the future, humans have left earth and settled on the planet Minerva. A race of cyborgs found their own planet; Cycle One. However, the humans control the cyborg population. They are easily reprogrammed when required. There is also a mutant planet, humanity’s fail first attempt at colonisation, and a few space stations floating around. Sometimes a story is enough to carry a novel. Sometimes the style or prose is enough to keep a reader interested. In Minerva Century Parsons unfortunately fails on both counts, but not for the want of effort. This is the story of patrol cyborg Dale and his friend Cathy. They have secrets and mysterious history together.

Parsons has populated his universe with a wealth of characters and Minerva Century has several plot strands to accommodate them. As well as Dale and Cathy’s story, there is a captain of a cyborg patrol ship (Nero), human leaders (Sir Blake, Sir Alex, Lady Amy and Lady Amelia for example), a band of female called Vessels, and the mysterious Klasp Cult Tech-Watchers, among many others that have moments from their point of view. But Dale takes the main stage. He finds his body dismantled so makes his way to a space station, where three businessmen pay for him to get some patch-ups so he can participate in fly-races. Events conspire to bring Dale and Cathy together, and they decide to work out who they really are. Meanwhile, there are some human-shaped space craft appearing, as rumours of the tech-watchers begin to escalate. A tech-watcher called Torch appears to be interfering. Dale and Cathy separate and Dale decides to make himself human. Cathy trains as a Vessel but has her own agenda. On Cycle One, the Brutal Games are approaching – competitive fighting among cyborgs.

Parsons spends a great deal of the first quarter of the book – and it is a dense book, 400+ pages of small text – world-building. However, it is often repetitive and confusing. His prose fluctuates from imaginative and poetic, to clunky and just plain odd (“casual galactic space business deals”). Sometimes, the oddness works in the dialogue as it gives the characters an almost alien perspective (“I’m a driver, sometimes a racer”). I’m not sure what the purpose of having so many characters in the story has, other than to give it the feel of being a diverse universe – many come and go in a blink of an eye, and still others are not named yet have dialogue. Which brings me to the naming of the characters. It felt particularly jarring to have the book populated with the likes of Amy, Dale, Cathy, Roy, Daphne, Jess, John and others, alongside Nero, Sil-Mah, Doorstep, Jax and Torch for example. All feels a little 1970s in execution. In fact, along with ideas like the Brutal Games and the Vessels, Minerva Century reminded me of sci-fi exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s, when cyberpunk gained popularity and cheap films featuring Michael Ironside were common. The Vessels in particular could be the Bene Gesserit sisterhood from Dune. The have visions of the future and they are a sisterhood.

I think that Parson’s story has some interesting elements. The usual cyborg v human trope of this type novel works well, primarily because the paths Cathy and Dale choose to take. However, the prose is off-putting, and needs a great editor. If Parsons had a little more faith in his readership and cut out a lot of the exposition, it would read a lot better. Many of the secondary stories and characters are superfluous to any enjoyment too. The three businessmen who originally hire Dale, Nero, and the human council members (the Ladies and Sirs) in particular brought little to the story. Early on, Parsons says Minerva is a ‘new human planet’. However, he repeatedly says things happened decades ago. In fact, he seems unsure of how long the histories should be. “Years and decades ago” is a reoccurring phrase throughout the world-building. Cathy and Dale had been apart for more than a decade or decades, although they are both written as if they are quite young. Cathy has memories of living on Cycle One in some hazy past. Amelia and Warren have known each other since they were teenagers, for “over twenty years” but it seems they knew or even lived on Earth. And he’s very vague about things. Phrases exemplified by “some local colony” pepper the text while sentences frequently end with “and more” or similar.

I’m sorry to say that I was confused about the narrative structure of the universe Parsons has built, which is down to the multiple character arcs which don’t seem to have much purpose, a bafflingly vague timeline and some overwrought prose. A tighter plot featuring just Cathy and Dale’s story, some rigorous editing and less exposition might lead to Minerva Century being a half-decent book.

This book was kindly donated by the author in exchange for a fair review.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938)

AnthemIn the author’s introduction to Anthem, Rand states that is story was written in 1937. It was originally published in 1938 but the edition I read – the 1995 Penguin Modern Classic edition – is the 1946 publication. Rand states that the occasional word was changed but the mood, “spine and spirit” were not changed. I’m not sure what the spirit of this novella is. I have mixed feelings.

I try not to take any prejudice into anything I read in this series, but that is literally impossible. I knew I found Gulliver’s Travels boring and I knew I loved Frankenstein before reading them again for this series. Through reputation alone, I had some trepidations but was generally intrigued when I picked up Anthem. As usual, I refrained from reading any introduction or notes not written by the author.

The story of Anthem begins with a confession of sin from the first person narrator – writing by candlelight in a tunnel that he discovered –  who refers to himself as ‘we’ and states “our name is Equality 7-2521”. All the characters are named in similar terms. Union 5-3992, Liberty 5-3000 and Similarity 5-0306 are examples. The latter belongs to the World Council. We are in a city in the distant future, but it is a low-tech one. Candles and glass are the apex of technology. In some distance past, known as the Unmentionable Times, something catastrophic happened with only a few survivors. This world has grown from some ashes that Rand never defines. Equality spends the first few pages describing the society he lives in: Children are raised in a collective, away from parents; careers are assigned (he is a street sweeper) even though he was good at science as a child; everything has a council (Council of Vocation, World Council of Scholars and many others); everyone lives and works (even plays are about toil) for their brothers and sisters – who are kept apart except for the Palace of Mating, and no-one has an individual life. This is a true authoritarian dystopia – men are punished with lashings or death without a trial.

350px-Famous_fantastic_mysteries_195306Our protagonist witnessed a public execution aged 10 and this seems to be the catalyst for change. He loves the Science of Things. He is curious. He shouldn’t be. And so when he discovers his tunnel, rather than tell his superiors, he keeps it a secret and works on a potential society-changing discovery. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl he sees by the side of a road (Liberty 5-3000). Their love is forbidden but grows slowly in any case. He names her the Golden One, even though individual names are also forbidden. He determines to present his discovery to the World Council of Scholars, dreaming they will accept him into their bosom. They reject him. He escapes the city, and with his Golden One, discovers a house full of books from the Unmentionable Times. He believes he will become a god-like figure of liberty to all men, and is worshiped by his mate. They rename each other Prometheus (him) and Gaea (her). He reveals the final forbidden word.

There are so many parallels in Anthem and books both before and to follow its publication. The lack of individualism and coded names reflect We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) – both authors lived in Russia. The collectivism and child-rearing away from any parental love feel similar to Brave New World (1932) by Huxley (the scenes when Equality is a child and wakes in the dorm in particular). The general dystopian society and the forbidden love that frees the man and woman may have influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). People are worn out at 40 harks back to The Fixed Period (1882) and forward to Logan’s Run (1967). And Anthem generally must have spurred many subsequent dystopic fictions

However, most of the classics in any genre are both derivative of, and influencers for, many other works. Standing on the shoulders of giants or turtles all the way down, however you look at it. That isn’t my issue with Anthem. I enjoyed pretty much the first two thirds of the story. It took a page or two to get used to Rand’s harsh style. However, once it picked up pace, some of the prose was quite poetic (“the sky is a soggy purple” being my favourite description). The story is a classic of course, boy meets girl, boy wants to shackle the chains of the oppressive authority and his curiosity naturally leads him to a way of doing so, girl falls into subservient love without knowing anything about boy – except maybe a spark she sees in herself; Rand never explains her backstory or hints at why she’s rebellious like Equality.

However, once Equality escapes and the Golden One catches up with him in the forest I found the tone oddly uncomfortable. We becomes I as the narrator reads the books he finds. I personally believe that the liberty of the individual is the most important tenant in life. Rand, for a short while, follows this path. The collective is a failure and the individual must rise. Freedom and liberty are what must be victorious. I kind of get that. However, it soon seems that the newly Christened and singular Promethues is looking to achieve god-hood over his fellow man (he calls them sons and his “chosen friends”); he will show them the error of their ways and lead them into the light. The final reveal left a bitter taste in this reader’s mouth.

There is a lot to admire about Anthem. While barely an original word or thought, it is like a smart and interesting remix of previous fictions and philosophies, and also demonstrably influential. It is not a Utopian rant or a polemic despite its philosophy, and has the bones of a story to it. It is of course, proper science fiction – examining a potential future while discussing the nature of man. I enjoyed reading it for what it was, up to the final point, and can see how Rand’s mind must have been working.

 

Image credit:By Popular Publications / Lawrence Sterne Stevens – http://www.philsp.com/mags/famous_fantastic_mysteries.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46698666

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

The Somnambulist and the Psychic ThiefThe fantasy and science fiction written in Victorian times has a very male bias. Often, novels only feature women as cooks or maids or worse. In modern, more enlightened times, much of the fantasy and science fiction set in Victorian times are a whole let misogynist. Which can only be a good thing. In The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle, the protagonists are female and male detectives, and while some characters within this novel act surprised by Miss Lane’s chosen profession, the fact that she’s a woman is not a barrier to a cracking page-turner of a mystery.

Miss X is a leading light in the Psychical Society and Miss Lane is her friend and collaborator, until the latter discovers the former is a fraud. She ups sticks from Scotland and heads to London, not at all convinced she knows what tomorrow might bring. En route from the train station to an employment bureau, she finds herself swiftly in the employ of Mr Jasper Jesperson, detective, and with a room alongside the same and his mother. Times are tough, and cases aren’t so forthcoming. With some imagination and charm, the detectives almost conjure up a case out of nothing, from their landlord in exchange for rent. They are to look into a somnambulist and to find out why after many years the sleepwalking has returned. Soon, the detectives are investigating the disappearance of several mediums while a new star in the spiritualist world, America’s Mr Chase, is taking London by storm.

Tuttle’s story is a genuine mystery, set against the backdrop of the London’s society being fascinated with all things spiritual; mediums, ghosts, ectoplasm, disembodied heads and other psychic phenomena all get a moment to shine in the novel. The mystery itself is not really the point of the book. It is a who-done-it, but the point isn’t to figure it out so much as to enjoy the company of the story. Tuttle sends us on a clever misdirect for most of the book, with the re-introduction of Miss X and her replacement for Miss Lane; Signora Gallo is a psychic who can ‘read’ a person from personal objects, especially jewellery.

The villain of the piece is fairly clear as is the role of the somnambulist, and the climax no huge surprise. Victorians loved a show; a big climax, and Tuttle doesn’t disappoint. Said climax, set in a theatre has a few surprising turns but with the expected conclusion.

Some things don’t add up or are glossed over. The original case of the somnambulist was meant to pay the rent, but that issue is never mentioned again. When Miss X joins the case, mid-way through the story, there is some initial trepidation from Miss Lane, but the whole abandonment issue from the prologue and associated psychic fraud is barely acknowledged. The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is told in first person by Miss Lane. It works really well as we only know what she knows and understands. We deduce clues pretty much as and when she does. However, in the last quarter of the book, events take an unpleasant turn for Miss Lane. Tuttle must explain what is going on to the reader so introduces diary entries ‘from the personal notebook of J.J. Jesperson Esq.’. This felt a little shoehorned, and might have worked better if introduced earlier.

However, these are minor issues within the book which don’t really dent the enjoyment of the story. Tuttle is as skilled in prose as she is in characterisation. Spending time with Mr Jesperson and Miss Lane, and the rest of the characters, was a delight. Their relationship – a bit of a Mulder and Scully – is expertly drawn. They are both flawed and they both know it too – Miss Lane admits she has to work on many elements of her personality and skillset. There are hints of further developments which need to be discussed in future tales – see the cat in the tree! The prose was an easy read, with the plot cracking along at a terrific pace. Tuttle writes it in the formal style you would expect in a Victorian detective novel, and it feels effortlessly precise. Tuttle’s skill is that the storytelling appears effortless as the plot moves around London and the cast of characters. I was never bored reading this book. I especially liked the fact that the main character was a female detective and that is wasn’t laboured on that she was a woman in a man’s world. Just an interesting, smart and pragmatic character doing her thing. There were plenty of other interesting characters for Lane and Jesperson to encounter, both male and female, and it was refreshing to see them characterised as just people, some interesting, some good, some flawed, but never made an issue of.  The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief is less of a thought-provoking complex mystery, and more of a fun dance through spiritualism and Victoriana with a lot of heart and soul.

 

Originally published: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/07/the-curious-affair-of-the-somnambulist-and-the-psychic-thief-by-lisa-tuttle/

Highlights from the first half of 2016

The Thing ItselfAs the 6th month of 2016 passes like one of Douglas Adam’s deadlines, it is time to report on my favourite books, comics and media so far. Why? Why not…

So far I’ve read 22 fiction books this year, plus 4 non-fiction, a couple of novellas and I’ve listened to 5 novels on audio too. For the full list see here. So here are my favourite 5 novels from 2016 so far, in no particular order (not including books I’ve read before):

The Thing Itself by Adam RobertsAll the birds in the sky

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B S Johnson

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Arcadia by Iain Pears.

Well, that was actually the order I read them. So a little porkie there…The most enjoyable of the bunch was Anders’ debut. Such a joy to read with some great characters. Not often do you come across the story of a witch versus a mad scientist! Arcadia was brilliantly written and fascinating. Atwoods’ was technically great and a superb concept with some bonkers ideas. Johnson’s is an older book and I came across it via the Backlisted postcast. It is an experiment in metafiction and anti-capitalist in tone, and right up my street indeed. My favourite thus far however is Robert’s magnificent look at aliens, AI, rivalry, history, religion, abuse of power and middle age.

Other reading highlights include a couple of old favourites: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and Sunshine by Robin McKinley. I’ve also enjoyed Joe Hill’s The Fireman and Making Wolf by Tade Thomson – which is not my normal cup of tea. I also enjoyed the bonkers Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. Which reminds me, I’ve almost finished my Vonnegut read. Reading (or listening to) all of his books in order. Only got Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus and Timequake to go. I’ll then write my Vonnegut reader…

Talking of future plans, I hope to embark on a Winter of Weird later this year. Reading 100 weird fiction short stories in 100 days – let’s see how that one goes.

Some comics I’m enjoying at the moment include:

Paper Girls by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey

The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

MonstressI’ve just started reading William Gibson’s Archangel, Beau Smith’s Wynonna Earp, and Rob William’s Unfollow. All of which have promise and I’m looking forward to reading more. However, my absolute favourite so far is the amazing and beautiful Monstress written by Marjorie Liu with art by Sana Takeda. Seriously, check it out! I was disappointed by no new issues of Ellis’ Trees and The Dying & The Dead from Jonathan Hickman.

In the moving image world, I’ve not seen as many new films or TV shows as I’d like. Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and The Lobster are standouts for me. On the telebox, loved the second series of Daredevil, thoroughly enjoying ploughing my way through iZombie, and quite enjoyed catching up with season 1 of The Flash. I was quite disappointed by season 3 of Arrow and I’m giving up on it. The same is true of Agents of SHEILD. Failed to grab me. My absolute favourites were season 2 of Better Call Saul and season 4 of House of Cards. Awesome TV.

I plan to have read most of the major awards shortlisted books in time for the Clarke Award winner announcement in August, but what else should I be looking out for? Let me know…

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of TimeOn the day – June 24 – that millions of UK voters chose fear over hope and ignorance over reason, I finished Clarke Award nominated Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It ends on a note of hope, because the opposing factions finally communicate and develop empathy. But it takes the destruction of most of humanity to get there. To be honest, I was rooting for the spiders.

In the far future, humans are terraforming planets, but rather than populating these new homes themselves, they plan to send down monkeys with a nanovirus in the hope of speeding up their evolution. Something goes wrong above one particular planet and although the nanovirus makes landfall, the monkeys don’t. Cut to a few thousand years later. Humanity has all but died out, from their own stupidity it seems (fact or fiction?). There are several ark ships – potential generational spaceships with thousands of sleeping inhabitants looking for a new home.

On the particular planet this ship – the Gilgamesh – comes across, the nanovirus has been busy. It infected a female hunting spider. Instead of killing a male, she worked with him to catch their dinner. Consequences. From 8mm to 50cm; from unthinking arachnid to sentient species, thousands of generations later, the spiders encounter the last of the humans and war is inevitable.

Tchaikovsky’s story is an odd one indeed. It alternates two stories in two time streams. In one, most of the same humans come and go out of sleep stasis to deal with the various issues involved in finding a new home – mutiny, potential destruction, a false dawn, potential love and offspring. The main character is a classical historian called Holsten Mason (he knows about the Old Empire) who manages to live hundreds of years but is dragged out of sleep whenever the plot needs moving along. The second story is over thousands of generations of spider evolution, featuring the direct descendent of the original thinking spider and her allies. The spiders discover their awareness, a kind of religion – their creator who is a mad human-AI hybrid is a satellite in orbit and communicates with them – that comes and goes, technology, and warfare (with each other and with ants). Other species are also affected to a greater or lesser degree, which adds an interesting perspective.

Not too keen on Tchaikovsky’s writing style, especially on the human story. I didn’t buy it. The characters spoke in the vernacular of today, despite being hundreds of years older than the dying Old Empire, which is meant to be in our distance future. The language and the characters just aren’t that interesting. I felt little empathy towards Mason and the last of the humans, which is a huge fail in a story about the desperate search for survival and a home. It almost felt like a debut novelist’s uncertain draft, pre-editing.

Which is odd, because everything about the spider’s journey was fascinating. Tchaikovsky’s ideas on evolution and these sense of language he uses are spot on. The arachnids can’t talk of course, but developed complex language through touch and movement. I believed the lives, the trials, the stories of the spiders much more than in the human chapters. The spiders had real agency and the chapters had something to say about tribalism, sexism and gender politics (reversed from what you’d expect), warfare, superstition and religion of the uninformed, and to a lesser extent, the power of science. Spider cities fight for dominance. The female leaders struggle to over-come their animalistic cannibalism when a male becomes smart and successful. Unthinking ant armies march all over the world despite the deaths of thousands. Strange signals in the sky are misunderstood and are argued about even when the meaning becomes clear. Technology only advances significantly in times of war and struggle. Great stuff.

And so I’m conflicted. A vote to leave means I miss out on Tchaikovsky’s interesting and eloquent story of spiders. A vote to remain means I put up with the dreary and disengaging story of humanity and its pathetic squabbles. I wanted the spiders to triumph and was disappointed, when in the last few pages of a 600-page book, hope beat fear, communication beat tribalism and empathy beat instinctive hatred.