So long…and thanks for all the books

Time to put theforgottengeek on hiatus methinks. 2017 has been an exceptional year for my blog in terms of readership and my own personal development, but I think for now, after 215 posts, it’s time to give it a rest.

With that in mind, and my penchant for reflection, I thoughts I’d pick out some highlights from my time writing the blog. My best moment, personally, was my interview with Jeff Noon (albeit via email). He spotted my tweet about me enjoying his latest book, A Man of Shadows, and agreed to answer a few questions as a result. My most read review from 2017 was Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. For some reason, when I review her work, it seems to do very well on my hits. My missive on Sarah Lotz’ The Three is the most viewed review overall, followed by Micromégas by Voltaire.

My History of Science Fiction Literature section has been fairly successful, and I’ve reviewed and analysed 35 books from 1516 (Utopia) to 1950 (Cities in Flight). I’ve wondered about crowdfunding it into a collected book, or even self-publishing. Maybe one day…?

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look at the gender distribution of the books I’ve read over the last few years. In the charts below, the inner ring is the male authors, and the outer is the female. I try not to chose my books on anything other than what I want to read, regardless of gender, but I find it disappointing that I with the exception of 2016 (25 male, 23 female) I don’t get close to parity.

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I do like that fact my reading is not restricted to white English speakers however. I’ve enjoyed books from South Africans (Lauren Beukes), Italians (Niccola Ammaniti), Mexicans (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), Barbadians (Karen Lord), Nigerians (Nnedi Okorafor), Germans (Juli Zeh) and others.

But without further ado, here are my top 10 books that I’ve read since I began this blog, which was 2011, when I had a total of 1,080 views of my 25 posts.

The Year of the Ladybird Graham Joyce 2013
The Humans Matt Haig 2013
The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman 2013
The Death House Sarah Pinborough 2015
Bete Adam Roberts 2014
A Tale for the Time Being Ruth Ozeki 2013
All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders 2016
The Thing Itself Adam Roberts 2015
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Claire North 2014
Europe in Autumn Dave Hutchinson 2014

 

And then the rest up to number 50, in order of publication date:

Seven Wonders Adam Christopher 2012
The Dog Stars Peter Heller 2012
Some Kind of Fairy Tale Graham Joyce 2012
Redemption in Indigo Karen Lord 2012
Jack Glass Adam Roberts 2012
Alif the Unseen G. Willow Wilson 2012
The Method Juli Zeh 2012
Lexicon Max Barry 2013
The Shining Girls Lauren Beukes 2013
The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf Martin Millar 2013
The Adjacent Christopher Priest 2013
The Machine James Smythe 2013
The Golem and the Jinni Helene Wecker 2013
The People in the Trees Hanya Yanagihara 2013
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Becky  Chambers 2014
The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber 2014
Cuckoo Song Frances Hardinge 2014
Tigerman Nick Harkaway 2014
The Three Sarah Lotz 2014
Descent Ken MacLeod 2014
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel 2014
A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar 2014
The Girl in the Road Monica Byrne 2015
Europe at Midnight Dave Hutchinson 2015
Signal to Noise Silvia Moreno-Garcia 2015
The Book of Phoenix Nnedi Okorafor 2015
Arcadia Iain Pears 2015
Way Down Dark  J.P. Smythe 2015
The Seed Collectors Scarlett Thomas 2015
The Power Naomi Alderman 2016
The Race Nina Allan 2016
A Closed and Common Orbit Becky  Chambers 2016
Europe in Winter Dave Hutchinson 2016
The Rift Nina Allan 2017
Anna Niccola Ammaniti 2017
A Man of Shadows Jeff Noon 2017
The End of the Day Claire North 2017
The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry 2017
La Belle Sauvage Philip Pullman 2017
The Underground Railway Colson Whitehead 2017

 

So farewell for now…and thanks for all the fish books.

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Some cultural comment from the previous bit since the last bit

2084Time for my annual missive on all things books, movies, TV and comics that I’ve enjoyed this year. It’s been a year of old favourite and new discoveries. So let’s start with my year in books, as Goodreads would put it.

At the turn of the year, which as been pretty much a cultural hellhole, I was midway through my Winter of Weird – an attempt to read 100+ short stories in 100 days. I didn’t quite manage it and it had a disappointing lack of effect on my psyche. I also finished off the magnificent Europe trilogy from the prescient Dave Hutchinson.

I knew that Philip Pullman was returning to Lyra’s world in 2017 so I re-read (again), His Dark Materials in preparation. I also revisited another old favourite from John Connelly and it seemed appropriate to re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four as well. I also picked up a Terry Pratchett for the first time in the shape of Mort. I did enjoy it but I wouldn’t say I was wowed. This year also so an interest in shorter fiction. As well as a couple of collections that I helped crowdfund – Haunted Futures and 2084 ­(reviews here and here) – I read and enjoyed a few novellas this year. Special mention to Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Looking forward to reading the rest of her works.

So, not including short fiction or re-reads, these are my favourite novels of the last year (in order of reading):

  • Europe in Winter – Dave HutchinsonCrosstalk
  • The Power – Naomi Alderman
  • The Gradual – Christopher Priest
  • The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
  • The Rift – Nina Allan
  • The Underground Railway – Colson Whitehead
  • Crosstalk – Connie Willis
  • A Man of Shadows – Jeff Noon
  • Anna – Niccolo Ammaniti
  • The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman.

 

And out of those, my absolute favourite was…not sure. Both the Allan and the Priest were remarkable in their own ways, both in terms of theme and structure. I really liked how they mess with the reader’s perception of time. And the Noon does the same with the sense of place. Colson Whitehead’s book, while not quite genre – despite winning genre awards – is a brilliantly written story that really boiled my blood.

Underground Railroad

Honourable mentions to Our Memory Like Dust by Gavin Chait as it had an unusual style to it that I very much appreciated.

No is not enoughIn terms of non-fiction, a bit of a mixed bag in terms of content. I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Liptrott’s The Outrun and made me want to visit the Orkneys. I was informed and educated by AC Grayling on democracy (Democracy and its Crisis), by Naomi Klein on Tr*mp (No is not enough) and on existential philosophers by Sarah Bakewell (At the existentialist café). I used to read a lot of politics and philosophy and I want to get back into the habbit.

I am indebted to a couple of podcasts for introducing me to various titles this year, both read and added to my to-read list: Bookshambles and Backlisted. Check them out.

 

Now to comics. A mixed year. Nothing amazing has crossed my path, although I finally caught up with Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority which I really enjoyed. Highlights are probably Paper Girls, Injection, The Dying and the Dead, Kill or be Killed, The Vision, 2016’s Jessica Jones run, Monstress and the 2015 runs of Scarlett Witch and All new Hawkeye. Promising new work from Image looks to be Evolution, although I’ve only read issue #1. I’ve been reading most of my comics on digital this year, but I’m itching to pick up some physical collected editions…

Visual media and TV. This was the year when Buffy celebrated its 20th anniversary, so I ploughed through the early seasons at the time. I’ve also started watching the very first season of The Twilight Zone which is hammy but fun. I thought Defenders was good but not brilliant and I really enjoyed Star Trek Discovery. Other enjoyment was found in Better Call Saul, iZombie, Capaldi’s last (and his best) season as Doctor Who (and very much looking forward to the new Doctor), Blue Planet II, the unbelievably daring Preacher and of course the brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale. Biggest disappointment was, of course, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. Boring! Santa Clarita Diet was appallingly unfunny and Iron Fist was just dull.

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I’m looking forward to catching up with American Gods, the new Twin Peaks, Westworld and Legion.

I’ve seen 49 films for the first time this year, both on DVD and cinema, which is a good haul I think. From the reboot of Ghostbuster to the recent Star Wars: The Last Jedi I’ve seen some terrific movies. My top 15 are:

  • A Monster Calls – heartbreaking
  • Baby Driver – entertaining
  • Bladerunner 2049 – awesome
  • Colossal – unusual
  • Get Out – brilliant
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 – amusing
  • Logan – brutal
  • Sightseers – dark
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming – enjoyable
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi – intriguing
  • The Death of Stalin – black
  • The Girl with all the Gifts – startling
  • The Red Turtle – beautiful
  • Train to Busan – horrific
  • Under the Shadow – creepy

Favourite – possibly A Monster Calls tied with Get Out and Bladerunner. Mentions to the non-genre I, Daniel Blake which I wouldn’t call entertaining but was certainly powerful and timely. I did enjoy Netflix’s Okja which also was a message movie. The Love Witch and Wonder Woman were also very engaging.

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So that is my round up. I hope to read more new and original fiction in the coming months, but I’ve also got some interesting non-fiction on my pile. Here’s too the artists and the creators and the educators!

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Cities in Flight by James Blish (1950+)

Cities in flightCities in Flight is a four volume collection of innovative science fiction spanning 1950 to 1962 from James Blish. The first of the so-called Okie stories was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1950. Earthman, Come Home was the first published book in 1955, collecting stories published since 1950. It actually appears as the 3rd book in the collected Cities in Flight. The 1st book They Shall Have Stars was published in 1956. The collection was first brought together under the main title in 1970. The version I read was the SF Masterworks edition from 1999.

Rather than the order of publication, I’ve taken this story as it is in this book, assuming nothing other than a story originally conceived and published in 1950.

The 1st book is really the explanation of how cities took flight. Starting in 2013, the cold war between the US and the USSR still rages on. Western civil liberties are turning into the Soviet model. Senator Bliss Wagoner wants to fight back. In space. A huge experimental project is being carried around Jupiter, resulting in gravitational manipulation. The machines are known as spindizzies. Meanwhile, another fringe experiment produces “anti-agathic” drugs, which stop aging. Expeditions into deep space begin.

Book 2 is called A Life for the Stars. We’re now well into the future. Earth is a Soviet planet. Spindizzie tech allows discontents to fly entire cities into space to escape the tyranny. Chris deFord is caught up in the escape of Scranton, Pennsylvania. A series of fairly routine adventures ensure leading Chris ending up in the flying New York, where he meets the rather figurehead-like Mayor John Amalfi – the main protagonist of the rest of the collection.

Earthman, Come Home is very episodic, as expected, being made up of several short stories. Amalfi and New York journey around the galaxy looking for work and dealing with conflicts. There is a galactic economic collapse. There is a mythical race of aliens that pre-date humanity. There is a return to Earth and destruction of many of the cities by Earth cops. Amalphi takes a planet to be a new home from a renegade city. All this takes place over centuries, as the characters all take the anti-aging drugs.

The final book – The Triumph of Time – sees a natural conclusion. John Amalfi is bored. However, not only can cities navigate using the gravity tech, but now entire planets can break free and wander the universe. Meanwhile, it is discovered that the universe will end in a few years. Ever the optimist, Amalphi takes his planet to the centre of the universe where, as time ends, he fights off an alien civilisation and creates a new universe where he is, perhaps, god.

The volume, Cities in Flight, is much more complex and detailed than the above summary of course. The amount of detail in my 600 page book and across millennia would take pages to describe. What is important, to me at least, is the progression of the science fiction. The characters are interesting to a point, but not hugely engaging or developed. Not much changes in their personalities over the centuries. By the time I’d reached the end, I could barely recall the characters in story 1.

And this is my biggest issue with this type of high concept science fiction. While the science and philosophy are generally interesting and imaginative, the characters and their traits are always little more than unimaginative cyphers. Written over the course of a decade, Blish’s characters do not evolve in anything like the way they should. Even when introduced – be it in 2013 or 3000+ – they are pretty much 1950s characters – both in terms of language and attitude. Science fiction authors only need to look into the recent past to see the differences in culture, language, philosophies and such-like. They apply evolution to science but not to society, despite clear and obvious evidence that it will change. Do we really believe that people are called John and Chris and Mark and refer to cops and bosses and brindles or even ultraphones in the year 3900? There’s even a damsel-in-distress character in the shape of Dee, from a planet called Utopia that forgot about space flight until New York turned up.

The ideas that Bliss had about science are the only things that make this volume interesting. This, above pretty much all other science fiction published before 1950, is science fiction about science. There isn’t the allegory of Wells or the adventure of Burroughs or the critique of Orwell, Huxley or even Lewis. There are pages of explanations of how this might work or that should operate. Solutions to obstacles often come from physics or chemistry. Blish talks about fundamental particles and quantum mechanics as plot drivers. There are nods to AI – the City Fathers – who in book 2, Chris essentially shows the machines passing the Turing Test.

Blish doesn’t mess around with the science. Of course, it is vital to the plot. The first book takes place around the orbit of Jupiter, and contains scientific experiments. The craft is known as the Bridge, and while on it, characters describe the science as Blish shows it; text contains chemical equations showing atoms and bonds. It is science that eventually causes the economic crash. Blish often describes the characters as engineers, not scientists (applied rather than pure) – maybe a way of reader engagement? There is plenty on interesting tech that is described, such as a way to poison a space craft. Blish uses proper terminology throughout – tau-time and t-time, the p-n boundary, etc. – that gives heft to his ideas. He must understand this stuff!

There are a few other themes addressed through the books, including faith and religion. Believers on Earth and Jorn the Apostle on New Earth, for example. War, obviously. There is a little romance between a few characters. Amalfi is the object of desire for Dee, but he can’t have children as space travel has damaged his genetic makeup. Another idea regularly examined is what it means to be a citizen. But so many of the ideas get lost in the less than impressive cast of characters and the very impressive science. Way too much exposition (when the machines are educating Chris for example) and world-building (much of the final book) to have an enjoyable story.

I struggled through the 600 pages of Cities in Flight and I wouldn’t say that it was worth the time or the effort. However, the evidence within the pages that this is one of the first high-concept proper science fiction books is fairly clear. Full on science geeks should get a lot from this volume, but those who like character-driven stories…not so much. From Star Trek to Banks’ Culture novels to the likes of Anne Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee , Blish begins it all.

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.

 

More info:

http://jeffnoon.weebly.com/

Buy Jeff’s books:

https://www.hive.co.uk/Search/Keyword?keyword=jeff%20noon&productType=0 

https://forbiddenplanet.com/?q=jeff+noon 

 

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.