On reading post-apocalyptic fiction: Thoughts after reading Anna by Niccolo Ammaniti

AnnaI wonder how many different takes on the post-apocalyptic tale there can be. I wonder why I picked up Anna from Italian Niccolo Ammaniti. I can’t remember where I saw the recommendation. But as I’ve never read any Italian dystopia I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did, but not for the reasons you might think.

The list of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read is a longish one. The likes of:

  • McCarthy’s The Road (2006)
  • Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
  • The Dog Stars (2012) by Peter Heller (essential The Road in the air)
  • Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985)
  • Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957)
  • The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher
  • Station Eleven (2014) from Emily St. John Mandel
  • Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) from Margaret Atwood
  • The Postman (1985) from David Brin
  • Defender (2017) by GX Todd
  • John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes
  • A bunch of zombie books

They all pretty much have the same story…one of survival in adversity. Overcoming the odds. The horrors humanity can sink to. A planet-wide Lord of the Flies.

And to be fair, that is pretty much the story of Anna. For our heroine is living in Sicily, after a virus wipes out everyone post-puberty. She’s not far away now, and is looking after her little brother, Astor, who she is trying to protect from the outside world, guided by a notebook written by her dying mother. After surviving a fair while, living off scraps and bargaining with the local boys for batteries and food, she encounters first a dog and then a boy called Pietro. She knows it won’t be long before Astor will be on his own, so with her new friends, they set off for the coast, hoping to make it to the Italian main-land, where grown-ups are rumoured to have survived.

And that is pretty much the story. They encounter a number of typical obstacles. The cultish colony with the mythical grown up who can cure everyone; the rebellion; the tragic accident; and the dilemma about leaving someone behind. Nothing new or surprising here. Except this is told from a pre-pubescent girl’s point-of-view as written by a middle-aged man. What Ammaniti does beautifully is two-fold.

Firstly, he doesn’t focus too much on the horrors. Anna doesn’t necessarily understand the world she lives in – referring to her mother’s book of guidance regularly. And Astor really doesn’t understand anything. So Ammaniti’s prose is about understanding and just getting by, which is what I guess most children do in any situation. The purpose of being human and learning is to find one’s place and purpose in the world. I believe Ammaniti is telling us this via the post-apocalypse cliché. The point of the story isn’t the science fiction warning element, but how a child becomes a young woman. The point is for Anna to discover herself without the help of any adult supervision. Although I’m not sure how Ammaniti put’s himself in Anna’s shoes.

But he does so and the second point, is that he writes beautifully. There’s not a page goes by without an awe-inspiring description, a well thought-out detail or a poetic reflection. In my copy (the Canongate paperback, 2015) there is no indication of a translator, so it may seem that Ammaniti can write in the most amazing English, although I’m aware some of his previous works have been translated. Maybe Italian translates well into English. I don’t know and would love someone to tell me.

Every so often Ammaniti changes pace and tells a different story. The story of the dog or the virus. Towards the climax, he tells the story of Pietro, which both frustrates and delights. It interrupts the climax but adds toll to it. Nice.

Can anything new be brought to the story of survivors once civilisation has broken down? Maybe not. Setting it in Sicily might be new to me, but it’s only window dressing. The truth of Anna is it about a young girl and her younger brother, and how their relationship develops as she reaches puberty; when she won’t be such as child any more. Bellissimo. Prego.


Thoughts on travelling through time without a time machine after reading Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows

timequakeI was planning to review Jeff Noon’s latest novel, A Man of Shadows, to tie in with my interview with him here. But the more I thought about it, and I’m a huge ponderer, the more I figured that it’s actually a hard book to review without any spoilers at all. Sure I could comment on the noir-ish plot, of hard-boiled investigator John Nyquist’s latest case, or the seemingly impossible murders committed by Quicksilver (no, not that one Marvel fans), or I could wax lyrical about Noon’s prose style, evoking both place (the city combining Dayzone, Nocturn and Dusk) and more importantly, a person’s sense of time. But in doing so, I would give away the joys of exploration to any given reader. I thoroughly enjoyed A Man of Shadows but it is hard to recommend it without giving away that experience of discovery.

So I thought about time and time travel. And minor spoiler alert…how Jeff Noon’s novelA Man of Shadows tackles time and his characters as they travel through it. But it is not a time travel novel in the traditional sense. There is movement through time at a rate not equivalent to our perceptions of moving at 60 seconds every minute, but there is no time machine at play. What Noon does, however, is describe those feelings of how time seems to pass differently for each of use depending on what we are doing at a given moment of the day or our life. As Matt Haig says: “How to stop time: kiss. How to go back in time: read. How to escape time: listen to music. How to feel time: write. How to KILL time: Twitter”. Time, and travel through it, is all about perception.

Now I’ve read a few traditional time travel novels (The Time Machine, Doomsday Book, Timescape, The Time Ships to name some) but to be honest, they are no really my bag. I enjoyed Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for example, but to me, it is just an excuse to write a historical novel through the eyes of the Twentieth Century reader. But I have read a whole bunch of books that tackle time in a different manner, as Noon has done. No time machine. No timey-wimey science. Just character and story dealing with time; so here are my favourites:

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957)

In which Gully Foyle is an uneducated, unskilled, unambitious man lost in space who discovers the ability to jaunt (a form of personal teleportation) through space and time. He is on a revenge mission but locked in a prison, where he learns his trick. By the end of Bester’s classic, it is revealed that it is faith that is the driver of jaunting. Bester uses Foyle to examine society’s prejudices and misogyny. He was very much ahead of his time.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) / Timequake (1997) by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians have the ability to observe time as we observe distance. And so they can see their entire lives ahead and behind them. Death is just a part of what they can see. So it goes. Vonnegut tells his main protagonist’s story – that of Billy Pilgrim – out of order which highlights the idea that time is fluid; more like a river than a dimension. Meanwhile, Timequake sees everyone travelling back in time 10 years to live their lives again, but without the ability to change anything from the first run. In Vonnegut’s eyes, we are all victims of time with no free will. I tend to agree.

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

The plot of Replay sees our hero – a 43-year-old man – die and wake up back in 1963 in his 18-year-old body. This happens repeatedly as his life takes different paths but he dies in the same manner on the same date every time. I suspect Grimwood had read some Vonnegut before writing this classic. We can’t escape our fate.

Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (2013)

The Shining GirlsIn which a more traditional time-travel tale is told, but without any obvious mechanism to drive the movement through time. Beukes story is a kind of serial-killer murder mystery, except the murder is collecting the life force from girls who ‘shine’, and the killer moves throughout the 20th Century. Set in Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens doors to other times. However, one of the girls that shine, Kirby Mazrachi, survives the attach on her, and starts investigating. Beukes provides no explanation on how or why time travel works. It is a MacGuffin for chasing a murderer through time.

The First 15 lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)

In which North mirrors Grimwood in a way. Every time Harry dies he returns to where he began, as a child with the knowledge of the life he has already lived a many times before. During his eleventh life, however, something starts to change. North’s story is very different from Replay in that Harry August finds he’s not alone in his ability. Time is something that can be fought?

The Shore by Sara Taylor (2015)

Taylor’s novel reads like a anthology of short stories. On an island group off the coast of the USA, a number of family’s interlocking stories are told over 150 years. Stories of the past, present and future reveal the strength of Taylor’s female characters. She uses time to highlight relationships, and while there is no travelling in time as such, the chapters move back and forth in time, like Vonnegut, suggesting time is a mutable river.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest (2016)

The GradualWhile travelling through Priest’s Dream Archipelago, Alesandro starts to lose time. After returning home from a short concert tour he finds he’s been missing for a few years and his wife has moved on. Alesandro is also searching for his brother who disappeared when he was a child and his brother joined the army. Priest sees time as something that can be taken and given, and travelled through at different speeds. The novel is also about music, which is heavily influenced by moments in time.

The Rift by Nina Allan (2017)

In which Allan uses the separation of time to examine the relationship between sisters. Can close childhood sisters find commonality after 20 years apart, when one thinks the other has been dead for that time? Less a time travel novel, than a time-stands-still novel, the nature of sibling love is tackled alongside delusions. The classic puzzle for the reader to unravel is the question of reality versus all-in-the-mind.

Time travel is better served when there isn’t a machine or a doodad that transports protagonists hither and thither through time. I see time machines as an excuse to tell a story set in another time period through the eyes of the modern reader, but not giving the reader the credit to be smart enough to dive straight in. The novels described above are all interesting, daring, and tackle the subject of how humans relate to time with no holds barred. Spend some time with them…

Interview: Jeff Noon talks about A Man of Shadows

A Man of ShadowsHi Jeff, and many thanks for agreeing to take some time out of your busy editing to answer a few questions.

Your latest book, A Man of Shadows, is the first traditionally published work you’ve written since 2002’s Falling Out of Cars. Why did you decide to publish it in this way rather than only as an e-book?

Jeff: After Falling Out Of Cars, I vanished into the world of screenwriting, or at least I tried to break into screenwriting. That didn’t work out as well as I hoped, so years later I returned to novel writing, with immense relief, it must be said. In the interim the whole eBook phenomenon had taken off, and I thought it might be an interesting experiment to put out a new novel myself, along with a good chunk of my backlist. That new eBook novel was Channel SK1N, which I enjoyed writing and publishing. It was good to be back. However, after a good few years of promoting and publishing myself, I really wanted to get back into a paper existence. I really love paper books, and I was missing seeing my work in the bookshops. My first venture was Mappalujo, a collaborative novel written with Steve Beard. We published this through a small publisher, which was great, but it still wasn’t reaching the bookshops. So when Angry Robot Books got in touch, I was more than pleased to write A Man Of Shadows for them. It’s so good to see the book on the shelves. I do feel now that my self-publishing experiment is over, and from now on I’ll be seeking publishers for my work. I hope to find a publisher for my backlist.

Concepts of time and what it means to an individual feature strongly in A Man of Shadows. What does time mean to you?

Jeff: Time is the landscape in which a narrative is played out: I see it, in story terms, as a kind of geography. Events move through it. Once I’d created the setting of the novel – a city divided into areas of strict light and dark, where the sky is hidden behind a vast canopy of lamps – I realised that time would have a very different function for the people who lived there. Cut off from the natural cycles of day and night and the seasons of the years, I thought that time might become more liquid for them, more personal, in the sense that everyone would be free to create, or to buy, their own time scales. This concept really excited me, and was a major force in the writing process. In a sense, the citizens are going back to a period in human history when time wasn’t so regimented, and more localised. I was interested in how this concept of liquid time would affect my characters, for good and for ill: how some would revel in it, and some would rebel against it, and how for others it might cause psychological problems. My protagonist, Nyquist, is severely and increasingly affected by a broken sense of time as the narrative progresses. My job as a writer was to chart his disintegration. I really felt scared for me at certain points.

Nyquist has classic noir-detective traits. Did any noir fiction or films inspire you?

Jeff: I love crime novels, always have done ever since I was a young teenager first reading Agatha Christie. I have a passion for all murder mysteries: hardboiled, traditional, or avant-garde. I really like the puzzle aspects of the narrative. So writing in the genre seems a very natural step to me, especially combining it with science fiction. I also remember reading with delight Isaac Asimov’s SF detective novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The actual plotting of A Man Of Shadows is influenced by the work of Ross MacDonald, my favourite of the American noir writers. He dealt with the twisted, darker side of family life, and I explore that same area in this book. Film wise, I really like The Long Goodbye, an amazing 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler by director Robert Altman, although that’s not really an influence. It’s mainly novels that I’m inspired by, especially older ones. I suppose my favourite contemporary crime writer is Jo Nesbo. But I feel that I’ve delved into his books so deeply and so many times that I can now predict his plotting. It’s a curse!

Your writing is often very evocative of place or culture. Do you go out and about observing and note-taking?

Jeff: Surprisingly, no. Not really. I write from my imagination, rather than from the outside world. I’m a bit of a recluse, I guess. But it suits me. I used to write about Manchester, my home town, but since leaving there about 18 years ago, I haven’t really depicted the real world that much. I’m going through a phase where I prefer to create realms of my own imagining. The initial idea behind the Nyquist mysteries was to have my private eye resident in a different weird city for each case, and to let the peculiar properties of that city create the case he has to solve. In a similar question, people often ask me if I’ve taken lots of drugs, and again the answer is no. I just make it all up!

Does your writing infect your dreams or do your dreams infect your writing?

Jeff: Not so much. These days I very rarely remember my dreams anyway. I do recall that the end of my first novel Vurt came to me in a dream. And recently, working on the follow up to A Man Of Shadows I dreamt that Nyquist was dead. I got up very early that morning and wrote a chapter exploring that possibility, and what it might mean in terms of the novel’s structure and narrative. Was he really dead, or had some other kind of reality taken him over? This is the kind of question that very often possesses me. But usually, I wake up without any dream memories. I do keep a pad and pen at my side, in order to jot down ideas. That’s very useful. If I don’t write them down, the ideas vanish after a few minutes.

Vurt is one of my favourite novels. As a debut, were you surprised by its success and longevity?

Jeff: I’m very happy that a good number of people love the book, and it’s very exciting these days, as I get older, meeting younger writers who have been influenced by the novel. That’s very gratifying to hear. It’s strange, because the book came out on a tiny publisher, and was really aimed at a few of my friends in Manchester: I wanted simply to write a book that they might enjoy, that was the main drive behind it. That, and the dream of escaping the day job!  So it’s quite incredible to me that the novel grew from that very personal impulse, to have a wider influence in British science fiction circles.

Finally, when can we expect your next book?

Jeff: If all goes to plan, I should have two novels out next year. The first will be The Body Library, the continuing adventures of private eye John Nyquist in a new city, with a new group of characters, a new crime, a new predicament. The second book will be my first ever proper crime novel. No SF or fantasy elements, just straight down the line murder mystery set in 1981: real people, real events. That’s a big change for me, a departure in a new direction. But the story itself is still concerned with my usual themes: I can’t escape those, now matter where I go in genre terms. I haven’t given up on SF, but I really want to explore some different approaches and themes as I get older. To never settle into one pathway.


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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.

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:



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


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.



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.


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