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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On reading Terry Pratchett: Mort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

1984Much has clearly been said and written about Orwell’s classic vision of a dystopic future. In 2017, it appears that people are more interested than ever, perhaps as a result of the Trump presidency in the USA and the UK’s referendum result to leave the EU. It was always my intention to re-read the book for this project, and I’ve recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign called 2084 – a book of short stories inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This is the third time that I’ve read the book. In this instance, I read the Everyman’s Library hardback edition published in 1987. As usual, I didn’t read any of the introduction or notes within the edition.

My problem with Nineteen Eighty-Four is the actual story, not the ideas or the prose or the characters (although I have a tough time fathoming how Julia could fall in love with an older man without really knowing him). The story is threadbare: A disillusioned man works changing the past within a dystopia, while dreaming of a better future. A young woman falls in love with him. They have an illicit affair. The man finds a dissident group and a book written by the enemy of the state which provides some hope. Everyone, except the woman, betrays him by not being who they seem. He is imprisoned, tortured and brainwashed. End of story.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a decent narrative, but the first third of the book is exposition and world-building. Then there’s about 50 or so pages of forbidden romance. And just as you think it is really getting going, Winston Smith – for he is the man in question – spends pages and pages reading this secret manifesto of hope. And then the concluding section is all the horrible torture and Room 101 (which is a tad under-whelming to be honest).

Of course, where Orwell comes into his own is with the ideas and the fear. All the elements that have seeped into our cultural consciousness are brilliant: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101 and others. A quick look at the now familiar world Orwell created…

Early on (p37 of my edition), Orwell is at his startling best. “If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death”.  Somewhat reminiscent of the fake news outbreak of 2016! So, Great Britain, now called Airstrip One and part of one of the three superstates, Oceania, is run by an English Socialist ideology under the watchful gaze of Big Brother and the Party. There is the Inner Party, or the elite and privileged, the Outer Party who work for the benefit of the Party (of which our hero Winston Smith is one) and the proles – the 85% of society who are worthless. Less than people. Oceania is at war with one or other of the other powers; the Neo-Bolshevistic Eurasia (Europe and Russia) and Eastasia (far east) whose philosophy is Obliteration of the Self. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth – making lies. Essentially altering all record of history – he works in historical revisionism. “Who controls the past controls the future”. The Party slogan. This gives him insight and is the source of his self-doubt and rebellion. He recalls events that officially never happened, or that one day Oceania is at war with Eurasia and an alley of Eastasia, and the next day the reverse is true. Society is monitored, of course, via the Thought Police and the telescreens that watch your every move.

I think this world happens too quickly. It only takes 20 or so years from the post-WWII world we know to get to Orwell’s world of superstates and oppression, with almost no internal conflict or rebellion. It would take a lot longer. People would fight. Not everyone would believe the Party and equivalents so readily, no matter what the circumstances. And how do other people live? We hear a little about the other states and nations, but we don’t here at all about how people live in Madrid, or Moscow, or Sydney or Santiago, Durban, Rio or anywhere else. All of which, I think, takes the edge off Orwell’s creation. Maybe it should have been called 2048?

1984aThere’s nothing wrong with Orwell’s writing of course. He articulates his concepts perfectly and they are genuinely terrifying, even – especially today. The prose is very readable, and even some of the higher concepts on display are explained well. There’s a beautiful passage on pg228 just before our heroes are captured. Winston and Julia watch a woman pegging out diapers as the sun goes down. It is a lovely piece of writing but also storytelling, proving Orwell could do it, if for short bursts. I’d have liked more of this type of writing and less of the pages and pages of reading from a text book!

Some of the character decisions don’t ring true for me. Julia falls for Winston because she can ‘see’ the kind of person he is from one or two brief and distant encounters – enough to fall in love with him – but yet the Thought Police and spies apparently cannot. Or can they? Of course, everyone Winston thinks he can trust turns out to be on the side of the Party – or else there’d be no horrific conclusion. On one occasion, Winston visits O’Brien on the pretence of picking up a new version of the Newspeak dictionary, but in truth to find out more about the resistance. He never leaves with the dictionary. So this is either an error on Orwell’s part, or on Winston’s!

I think Brave New World is a better book, and We is a more interesting story. But Orwell has managed to distil the ideas of all that went before him into a great read. It is no wonder this book is a classic. The ideas are phenomenal. The story let’s Orwell down. Nineteen Eighty-Four is still a remarkable work of science fiction, despite being heavily influenced by more rounded books.

Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

Haunted FuturesHaunted Futures is a KickStarter-ed (is that a verb yet?) multi-genre anthology of what might be described as weird fiction, taking a look at life, and sometimes more importantly, death, in a variety of futures. And maybe one present. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: To the future – yours, ours, everyone’s. May it be haunted by only the delightful specters. [sic]

The idea of being haunted is an interesting concept. Haunting usually has negative connotations. Someone who looks haunted might be anxious or distressed or worried. A place that is haunted is associated with death, often tragic. But it can also mean to be pre-occupied or obsessed with a memory or an emotion. So who and what has Jones compiled here with this crowdfunded collection of short stories.

Well, there are a couple of headline acts: Warren Ellis, Tricia Sullivan and Jeff Noon. And a bunch of writers I’ve not come across before. Let’s have a brief look at each of these stories and see what they came up with under the banner concept of haunted futures:

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

The collection begins with the story of a mother whose daughter has left home and is thinking of getting a dog. Darla, the daughter, disappears and Marit, frantic, tries to piece together the mystery. She uses a system call Genie (which I guess is the future version of Amazon’s Alexa) that provides for you using algorithms. This is an interesting take about control, and getting on with life. Shoulders’ writing is engaging and draws you into the story.

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

We’re now in alien invasion territory. There are ships from somewhere else, but no actual aliens. Rawlik’s tale is like a disaster movie from the point of view of reasonably ordinary folk. There are plenty of ideas from the movies, such as the Mechs and the interiors of the space ships. The theme seems to be about population control. There is talk of terraforming Mars. A fun and satisfying read.

Split Shadow by SL Huang

Huang has written a powerful story about something you don’t usually come across in science fiction; mental health. This feels like a very honest telling. The story concerns friendships amongst what might be perceived as the underclasses – the mentally ill, the addicted, the homosexual. In the future, people can be split into the good parts of themselves and the ill or depraved part. That part doesn’t usually survive, but sometimes… Dora sets up a support group for the splits and finds friendship and hope. It is a very human story that reminded me of Never Let Me Go and Spares.

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

What is art? What is life if not art? I really like the premise of this tale, although the execution isn’t quite there. But that’s a personal preference as I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction. A serious of letters from a man to his wife interspersed with her coming out of some kind of medical condition. The slow reveal through the letters is great and the payoff is terrific and quite heart-breaking.

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

I’m quite a fan of Sullivans. She tends to have pretty sharp takes on technology. In this story she takes a look at the future of augmented reality. There is some proper darkness here, as the AR people use has attracted their dead relatives – who won’t leave our protagonists alone. How do we think about death and the dead, when they can still exist with us – but they’re not ghosts! While the previous stories have been good, Sullivan’s skilled prose really stands out in the collection (only really matched later by Noon).

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

I didn’t quite get this one. Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books but this is the first time I’ve read his prose. It is good, but left me a little cold, despite having an absolute cracker of an opening line. It reads like a fairly dry, almost technical story of death and doing a job, as the Exotic Crimes Squad goes about its business. It sounds intriguing, but it lost me a little.

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

Another epistolary tale; diary entries from someone who might be described as a network engineer. There are cameras everything and data on everything. Someone has to watched. But there’s a glitch. A ghost. But is it in the network or is it in the person? Half way through, this short also becomes a comment on celebrity worship, as the engineer spots the odd and repetitive behaviour of one of the most famous people on the planet. There’s interesting traces of past and/or future for the reader to ponder. My thoughts are that the ghost is more likely to be in the person than in the machine.

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

Another issue not normally found in speculative fiction (unless you’re Neil Gaiman): homelessness. This is an enjoyable story of how a rich and successful salesman of wonder footwear ends up on the streets. In this case, amusingly, he jumps on a health-food bandwagon which has an unfortunate effect! He tells the story to another successful protagonist…and has he infected her too?

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

This is the second story in the collection that I just didn’t get. Again, more of a preference thing. This is a second person grand vision of ancients and abysses and galactic gates. I’m not even sure that the story is here as I was totally disengaged.

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

Meanwhile, this was proper fun. A very short story about the titular drug. I love Stolze’s idea of a drug that can give you the confidence of a Bond-like spy. This is about infidelity and the very nature of existence told via the medium of drug control – or the lack thereof. A confident and entertaining read.

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

Shift is another entertaining piece; this time about a civil war. Humanity has been split into two – the pure humans and animal-human hybrids caused by the integration of animal DNA. More spying and suchlike too. I think that this is also a story of teenage love in adversity. And with the graffiti too, just the struggle of being a young outsider… I love the idea reveal of the gran character. Lots to like here, although I’m not sure of the science in this science fiction – a human to a wren?

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

A real oddity in this collection. Reppion’s story feels like an old-fashioned horror. Set in an abandoned railway station in the middle of a cemetery it is creepy and surprising. The theme turns out to be plants versus animal and it so very effective – especially the scenes ‘out of time’. Readable and enjoyable as a standalone, and while the theme might just resonate with the idea of haunted futures, the style and tone are out of place here.

Future Noir by Michael Grey

The title says it all. This is science fiction noir at its most entertaining. The afterlife has been proved. So how does that affect religion, technology and life itself, when everyone knows that there is more after this existence. But there’s a problem. Of course. How do you solve the first murder in 20 years, when you can communicate with the dead. Grey handles the dilemnas well. A great read.

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

I have no idea what happens in this story. There are at least two Arks. People want to see the sky. There are leaders. There are population issues. Each passage starts with a meaningless date and population numbers, which don’t seem to relate to the prose. Either I’ve completely missed the point or this is too smart for its own good. I could not find a way into this story at all. Not for me.

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

Back on deliciously safe ground with Noon. Nobody writes quite like him. We’re in a post-human world. Mind-body duality is considered alongside machine-flesh duality. Technology has failed, so what happens to the technology within a person? And what happens when someone dies and someone loves that person? A key to the success of this story is Noon’s descriptive prose, and his integration of music and the emotions it engenders. Powerful stuff.

As usual with any collection of short stories, some stand out and some simply don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. Tastes vary, but there’s something for most fans of speculative fiction here. And the best thing about collections like this is that they give voice to new or unknown names. I’ll be looking up Greg Stolze, John Reppion and SL Huang for sure… Alex Acks is definitely one to keep an eye on too. For me, the best in this collection come from Noon, Huang and Reppion. Nods to Schwarz, Sullivan, Grey and Stolze.

Haunted? In some case I think these stories hit the brief. The stories about death are particularly germane. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but maybe as a species, optimism is undeserved. I think this is an interesting collection of ideas and styles that, with the one contextual misstep, is worth any fan of speculative fiction’s time.

 

 

Note: I contributed to this project via KickStarter. Find out more: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/960264226/ghostwoods-books-our-2014-15-list-of-6-to-8-books

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

WalkawayThere’s a saying that he who dies with the most toys, still dies. In Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, he/she/they who dies with no toys, gets to live forever. What is a walkaway? In this story, someone who abandons normal, or default, society and literally walks away. With nothing. And subsists not in a sharing economy, but within a gifting economy – everything freely given and nothing required in return. A communist utopia where you expect nothing in return for your efforts.

We’re in a climate-change ravaged near future and the rich are richer and more powerful than ever. Hubert, Etc and his friend Seth meet Natalie at a Communist party – where the disaffected young party all night and pour scorn on society’s sheep they see on the morning commute. Except Natalie is the daughter of the very powerful ultra-rich and over-protective Jacob. They decide to walk away, and they meet Limpopo; a natural leader but one who rejects hierarchy. In this extrapolated future, everything (food, clothes, tools, even medicine) can be 3D printed and society is tolerating these walkaway communities. Just about. Life can exist because everyone acts altruistically. Which is anathema to the ultra-rich elite. And Jacob wants his daughter back. Meanwhile, at a walkaway university, researchers and mathematicians have been able to download the consciousness of a dead colleague into a computer. Is this immortality in a utopian society?

Cory Doctorow knows what his subject is and who is readership are. The writing is excellent, if occasionally incomprehensible. This is because he writes in techno-hacker counter-culture lingo. Which is fine if you’re aware of the rules of the game. You need to understand who infowar researchers are and what it means when an infotech goon pwns everything! I imagine that someone less aware wouldn’t have much inkling of what he is talking about. There is plenty of wit and comic satire if you can dig beneath the jargon. It is pretty much on the button too, with even the term ‘snowflake’ included. There is plenty of darkness explored, especially in the relationship between Natalie and her father, but there is always hope that everything will work out, despite the repetition of attacks on our heroes, especially once the post-humans have been stabilised.

The story itself is fine, although is a tad repetitive: sitting around talking about political and ethical philosophy (from what is ownership and property to the intricacies of neurobiology and what life is) followed by a violent attack, someone dies and is put in the computer, move on; and repeat. About half a dozen times. The characters are all interesting with multiple motivations. The good guys are all about love and tenderness and equality – there is gender and sexuality fluidity and every leftist and liberal ideology discussed. And there is an awful lot of discussion. Pages and pages; sometimes in the storytelling, sometimes in character discussions. There is so much detail it almost blows the mind. Doctorow demonstrates what appears to be an immense intellect. Meanwhile, the bad guys are shades of grey. Jacob is motivated by both greed for his power and some misguided emotion for his daughter. Another non-walkaway turns out to be not all she seems. And now those with nothing have created immortality, and the rich aren’t happy.

Proper science fiction this, from Doctorow. A warning of our times. An investigation of what it means to be a human today and where the future might take us. What immortality might look like and how it affects the psyche. A look at the science of today and of tomorrow. And in the vein of many a classic science fiction novel, can a utopia ever work? A few tweaks with the plot would have made me happier. Slightly less discussion and more of the tender human moments such as when Tam listens to Seth putting his slippers on. Those who follow Doctorow’s sharing/hacking/fluid cultural ideologies will get a great deal from this book. Those not familiar, I imagine, will struggle. Not for everyone, but spot on for the few.

I received an ARC from the publisher. Quotation was not allowed.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse-mythologyPerhaps the most striking thing about Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – amazing cover and jacket aside – is that it reads like a Neil Gaiman novel. Indeed, it could possibly fit in as an extended prologue to American Gods. So how is it that an author of comic books, children’s books and the occasional adult novel turn existing myths – from a culture not his own – into something personal and inclusive to all?
Norse Mythology is Gaiman’s interpretation of classic Norse myths, inspired by his personal interest. This stems from Gaiman’s love of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Thor which Gaiman read as a child. So -what we have here is a relatively short retelling – and not a re-imagining – in a series of 16 tales from the dawn of creation to Ragnarok – the Norse end-of-times. You can read each tale in isolation, or taken as a complete piece there is a rough structure, as we’re introduced to all the favourites (Odin, Thor, Loki, Frigg, Baldur, Heimdall, giants, dwarfs and all the rest) and how they came to be the characters that some might know and love.
Is it a novel? I don’t think so. A collection of tales. Certainly. Anyway, the book of stories opens at the beginning of course. We learn how the nine realms and other classic locations (Asgard, Hel, Midgard, Valhallah, and the rest) came into being. We learn of the World Tree – Yggdrasil and the first gods (Buri and Borr) and how it led to Odin becoming the All-father. There are stories of the tribalism between races: Aesir (wise Odin, mighty Thor, beautiful Baldur, etc.), Vanir (Godess of love, Freyr for example, who everyone seems to want to wed), Asynjur (Frigg and Nanna amongst others), the frost giants, other giants, including one who own enormous beer-brewing cauldrons (Hymir), norns, dark and light elves, and creatures such as the giant wolf (Fenrir) who is also the son of Loki (and his other offspring, including Hel, and the world serpent Jörmungandr). It’s amazing how many children these gods have!
And of course we’re introduced to the first humans, created by the gods, Ask and Embla.
So why are they so readable and why has Gaiman made these his own. I’m not familiar with the detail of Norse mythology. I know a little from my younger days and a little more from the Marvel comic book universe. I don’t know how accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the characters or the events are. I’d hazard a guess at them being spot on! But Gaiman’s gods are fallible, human, lusty, lucky, vain, inconsequential, foolish, dumb, brave and mostly fortunate. They make rubbish choices when it comes to life and love. The story of The treasures of the gods tells of how Odin got his arm ring and Thor got his hammer for example, but these gifts are undeserved. Meanwhile, The Death of Balder has a ridiculous plot point. But Gaiman doesn’t try to re-write it. You get a real sense of these characters. Not necessarily as Gods, but as us; prone to error and goodness and, well, being human. Not all the stories are so black and white, hero and villain.
So Gaiman’s re-telling is really the story of how the Norse Gods came by their godly powers. Almost a comic book origin story. It is little different from the Marvel universe . . . give ordinary people powers or tools to make them godlike and they become corrupt. It’s a combination of the humanity Gaimen instils in the characters and his ever-readable, brilliant prose style that makes you feel like this is a fresh and original telling. Witness:
There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to Loki for advice.
And:
“How terrible. How Sad. You have killed my brother,” said Loki. But he did not sound sad. He did not sound sad at all.
This writing has wit and quirkiness and charm. As exemplified above, brevity is perhaps the key. There aren’t long arduous passages of description. This book is the art of storytelling. There’s no criticism of the characters’ actions, nor preaching about the outcomes. Gaiman writes all the right words in all the right places.
Gaiman tells his tales of Norse Gods we can in someway relate to. That is what makes this a terrific book. You don’t need to be a scholar of any mythology, or even a fan of Gaiman’s previous work, to find something here. There are battles and romances, gods die and are reborn, there are lessons and adventures and fun to be had.

The end of my Winter of Weird: Thoughts on The Weird

the-weirdAnd so it comes to end. On 31 October 2016 I embarked on a mission to read the short story anthology The Weird (2012) – edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – from cover to cover, averaging a story per day. I almost achieved the goal, hitting the 110 stories in 117 days. Not too bad, considering all the other stuff I read during the same period, too.

It feels, well, weird, now it’s come to an end. Stories of ghosts and monster, aliens and demons have been with me almost as a comfort blanket for the past 4 months. And yet, as I’ve said before as I’ve marked this quest, it didn’t have any kind of effect on me. I wondered if I’d get creeped out, or even have nightmares. I never get nightmares. Maybe because the stories didn’t get under my skin in the way I’d hoped. I certainly didn’t find a new favourite writer, although some of the authors featured within this anthology will be added to my to-read list.

The Weird, as mentioned, features 110 short stories. Not quite 110 authors as some are featured twice. It is the very definition of a weighty tome; my edition coming in at more than 1100 pages (and featuring two page 800s!). Some of the stories are relatively long: novellas or novelettes almost, depending on your definition. Others are just a few pages. Each story comes with a brief introduction about the author, their notable works and where-else they’ve been published. We have big names and relative unknowns, novelists and short-story specialists. Authors who are known for a particular genre writing in a different one; authors treading familiar ground. The first in this collection is Austrian Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908) and the last is Australian K.J. Bishop’s Saving the Gleeful Horse (2010). Nations covered include Iran (Reza Negarestani), Czech Republic (Michal Ajvaz), Nigeria (Amos Tutuola, Ben Okri), Poland (Stefan Grabinski), Japan (Hagiwara Sakutaro), Benin (Olympe Bhely-Quenum), Italy (Dino Buzzati), Guatemala (Augusto Monterroso) and many others. This is truly a global story of weird fiction. Of course, the usual suspects are all present and correct too: Gaiman, Miéville, Kafka, Barker, Borges, Carter, Aickman, Lovecraft, Peake, Bradbury, King, Walpole, Russ, Ellison, James, Blackwood et al. The oddest name on the list might just be Joyce Carol Oates.

And in the 110 stories, there is something for everything I’m sure. But also probably something for everyone to not get along with too. Out of the pack, while I didn’t engage with a fair few, I can say only one left me completely cold: Singing My Sister Down (2005) from Australian Margo Lanagan felt like an exercise in confusion with no coherent message, plot or empathy for any of the characters, as a ‘weird ritual’ takes centre-stage. It would take too many words to describe and nod to each story on display here. Suffice to say that I enjoyed the classics: Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier (1971); The Snow Pavilion, Angela Carter (1995); The Brood, Ramsey Campbell (1980); The Willows, Algernon Blackwood (1907); Casting the Runes, M.R. James (1911); Mimic, Donald Wollheim (1942) and others.

A couple of nods should go to George R.R. Martin’s Sandkings (1979) and Daniel Abraham’s Flat Diane (2004). The former is a totally enjoyable and unexpected sci-fi romp from the master of fantasy, while the latter demonstrates that you can write about horrible and brutal subjects with poignancy, warmth and beauty. One of the best in this collection…Looking back over the list of stories here, I recall enjoying this little oddity (Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands (1987) by Garry Kilworth) or that complex exploration of weird writing (such as Finland’s Leena Krohn with Tainaron (1985)). In the end, however, there are just dozens of great, odd, disturbing or interesting stories that I will return to in time, such as Brian Evenson’s The Brotherhood of Mutilation (2003) or Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Hell Screen (1917).

While science fiction, specifically, evolves as a form of literature over time, reflecting the times and ideas of the culture it comes from, I found that many of the themes here haven’t evolved so. The writing styles have, for sure, and a willingness for experimentation in language and form. However, with one or two exceptions – such as the excellent In the Lion’s Den (2009) from Stephen Duffy that uses CCTV as a plot device – many of the stories that feature later in the anthology could easily have been written in years gone past. No evolution of theme or creepiness or weirdness. A rare comment on our times (war being the most obvious theme here). T.M Wright’s The People on the Island (2005) seems to feature a trapped colony that could just as well come from Kafka or Borges for example. Meanwhile, Hagiwara Sakutaro’s The Town of Cats (1935) could be a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti’s The Town Manager (2003). It is interesting, however, that I’m always on the lookout for original and unusual styles of writing, and yet it is often the most traditionally written that I’ve enjoyed the most. So maybe it’s the originality of the subject that I’m craving. Something I’ve never read before, such as Mark Samuels’ creepy The White Hands (2003) a metafictional gothic chiller or James Tiptree Jr’s witty The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats (1976).

My absolute favourite: I couldn’t possibly pick one…

Enough! I can’t mention all these stories, although flicking back through my edition I remember some of them fondly and look forward to reading them again. Which probably says a lot about me. Stories of battling cities, creepy cages, ghoulbirds, mysterious strangers and stranger houses, death, captivity, rats, autopsies, devils and a whole lot more have had no adverse effect on my psyche. Which is both odd and deeply satisfying. My Winter of Weird doth conclude, but my personal weirdness continues.

A love letter to books: Fav Re-reads – The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly

the-book-of-lost-thingsIt’s been about 8 or so years since I first read The Book of Lost Things. What this re-read has nicely demonstrated is that memory plays tricks on you. I remember this book as being a sad story which incorporated fairy tales and aspects of World War II. In fact, it is a heart-breaking, beautiful and brutal love letter to books that subverts fairy tales to show how complex humans are.

When I was reading Connelly, I was struck by how beautiful his writing is (“She was night without the promise of dawn, darkness without hope of light” – has the Big Bad ever been described thus?) and how there is so much packed into the 348 pages of my edition. Almost every other page there was something I wanted to make note of. Either a phrase or a passage or idea. The story begins with the horrible premise of a young boy, David, trying to save his terminally ill mother from leaving him by modifying his behaviour; making sure he does everything in even numbers, for example. Connelly shows how the strong their relationship is during the early pages through both their love of books. “…although both were lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time”. Of course, when she dies David’s father finds love elsewhere. Before long, a grieving and guilt-ridden David has a half-brother getting all the attention. He finds solace in whispering books. (I love the way the books mock David’s doctor when he’s wrong. And Connelly’s description of how a child feels on dealing with a academic is awesome). When he’s transported into a world of fairy tales, he must battle some familiar foes and makes some interesting alliances in order to get back home.

What I especially liked is Connelly’s subversions. In the magical kingdom, a new breed of half-wolves half-men are the result of Red Riding Hood’s sexual perversions (“’Lovely wolf’, she whispered. ‘You have nothing to fear from me.”). Meanwhile, ‘Hansel’ is a little boy who cries while his sister provides – and they punish the woman in the candy house, before ‘Gretel’ abandons her brother. However, these subversions also bring about Connelly’s only real misstep. After the heart-break of David’s real life, he meets a Woodsman. It appears that the adult is torn apart by wolves. David then meets a collective of dwarves and a mean, obese Snow White. The novel descends into a darkly comic treatise on the oppression of the worker. But David is soon back on his journey and witnesses a Huntress slay a deer-girl. The Huntress then gets her comeuppance in the creepiest manner imaginable. The tonal shift from brutal horror and back again for the diversion into Snow White’s world sits uncomfortably with me. But maybe the horrors throughout the book were a bit too much and some levity was required.

I’d also mis-remembered Connelly’s novel as being more of a young adult story. So while it features the emotional growth of a 12 year old boy, this is no book for kids or even young adults. This is an adult book with adult themes and some nasty scenes.

When I first read this book, I hadn’t read all of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I have now, and I hadn’t equated the character of Roland here with King’s tale. Both are a tribute in a way to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. Which I’ve not read. In this story, Roland is almost unbearably lonely and has little faith in humanity. Maybe he’s right…There is a theme of the nastiness of war that runs through The Book of Lost Things: in our world it is WWII, while in the magical world, it is the gathering of the wolves (“So you left behind one war, only to find yourself in the midst of another”). Death is unbelievably horrendous in all its forms here. Even the bad guy – the Crooked Man – is only trying to stay alive (although is also incredibly evil). Only the death of a missing girl, Anna, has any real positivity.

I felt the end was a little rushed. The Book of Lost Things isn’t a long novel, but when brave David defeats his enemies and his lessons are learned, the Woodsman unexpectedly reappears and before we know, David is back in ‘our’ world. It was also fairly obvious who the king was and how it reign came to pass. The end of the magical journey happens to quickly without the weight it earned from the rest of the novel.

There is real melancholy and depth and sorrow here. Pain is real and is felt, demonstrably, by the characters here. When David finds Roland’s body, he bends over in agony. Heart-wrenching. Much more than I recalled. However, the title should give it away. The things lost as a child when we finally must grow up. Life is almost unbearably tough at times, and not at all fair. When David’s story concluded, pretty much as the Crooked Man had foresaw, I had a lump in my throat.

I’m very happy that I re-read The Book of Lost Things and I hope that my memory of it remains true. Life is hard. Death is horrible. But Connelly loves books and stories and maybe they are what we need. This ain’t no kids book of fairy tales, but a brilliant, beautiful and brutal work of magic.

On activist fiction: Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny

everything-belongs-to-the-futureEverything Belongs to the Future is the debut fiction novella by renowned author and journalist, Laurie Penny. As well as her non-fiction books exploring gender, sexism and capitalism, she writes The Guardian, The Independent, Salon, The New Inquiry and many more. She is a loud voice who I follow on Twitter. I agree, generally speaking, with her politics, although I haven’t read her non-fiction books, only some of her articles.

Penny crams a decent amount of plot into not so many pages. We’re almost 100 years hence and the rich can almost literally buy time. Or rather an extension of life from the moment they take the medicine; a kind of ‘Fountain of Youth’ wrapped up in a blue pill. We’re in a divided England. The gaps between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Specifically, we’re in Oxford. A group of activists are living in a co-op house and are plotting against those who’ve been ‘fixed’. You see, the scientist inventor of this remarkable technology has fallen in with our perfectly representative house-mates. Nina and Alex, Margo and Fidget are the kind of activists that you’d imagine Penny might know in real life. Scruffy, punky, gender fluid and sexually diverse. Which is a good thing in theory but a little obvious from Penny. I’d have liked a little more stereo-type mould-braking.

It was the four of them, Nina and Alex and Margo and Fidget, and they were off to rob the rich and feed the poor. An exercise, as Margo put it, as important for the emotional welfare of the autonomous individual as it was for the collective.

Inventor Daisy, who is all but a child in an old body, has had enough. She wants to fight back and so when she meets our anarchists at a party they’ve crashed, she joins their cause. And they invent a timebomb. And they plan to set it off at the Big Event! But, one of their number is not who they seem and despite falling in love, must betray the group.

Pretty good story but to be honest, I’d have preferred it fleshed out into a full-length novel. I felt that that character development and the reveal of the betrayal plus consequences was a little rushed and quite under-developed. Without giving anything away, too much happens too quickly and like a cheap burger, left me wanting something more substantial after the initial hit.

There is a lot to like about Everything Belongs to the Future but the brevity of the story means that there’s no room for subtly or metaphor. This feels like Penny’s fantasy activist future. A cause that she’d like to fight. She would like our current situation of the power in the hands of the rich elite to escalate so she can be one of her characters and dramatically bring about revolution. It might be a bit too zeitgeisty for its own good, and might date quickly. I’ve not read much other science fiction where early 90s crusty-types persist into the future…but who knows, I guess. Science fiction isn’t about prediction, as such… And yet I admire and agree with the message of the story. It’s really good science fiction. A plausible premise. A divisive technology. A warning about our times. A little dystopic.

The group of activists represent Penny. Clearly. The betrayer should have been a stronger voice in opposition, which would have brought more depth to the story. Again that calls for a longer book. Daisy is the best character, of course, with the most depth. She has so much riding on her moral choices. She knows her choices are monstrous. Penny shows how people can be pushed over the edge:

“I realize it’s an escalation,” said Nina, “and I realize it’s the kind of escalation we’ve never considered before…I hate these people. I hate the suits and I hate the scholars and I hate the state…”…Her voice was flat and a little frightening.

So what about the message? The rich have power and the poor have nothing? It is of course a truism and this might be a plausible extrapolation. Penny is right to highlight it, because in these troubled times, people need to understand the choices they make. People in power never represent the ordinary person, whatever they might promise. The problem with books like this is that they inevitably speak within an echo chamber. Despite being a fine piece of writing, I’m not convinced many outside the choir will be interested in the hymn sheet.

Activist fiction is a difficult trick to master. Dangers of being overly polemic and just being plain shouty are obvious. The author needs to strike a balance between story, characters and message. There’s nothing wrong with Penny’s writing. Her voice is strong. Her prose is enjoyable, well written and very readable. She can tell a story. I think Penny almost gets it, but misses. Probably due to a combination of the strength of her personal convictions and the length of the story. I wish she’d taken more time and written something at least twice the length. I imagine anyone who didn’t have sympathy with Penny’s viewpoints would really take against this book. I enjoyed it for what it was, but would have preferred something greater.