Defender by G X Todd

defenderWriting any kind of post-apocalyptic story must be quite daunting. What could possibly be said that hasn’t already been said before concerning the human condition once society collapses? One way around this is to invent a new way of bringing about the end of the world. In G X Todd’s debut novel Defender it appears to be the voices in people’s heads that drives them to murder and suicide, until only a few un-afflicted remain.

It’s been a few years since normal life ended as people discovered the voices in their heads were driving them to commit atrocities. We meet Pilgrim, who has a voice of his own, which is known conveniently as Voice. He appears to be at peace with this, but also a bit of a loaner. Until he stumbles across a young girl – Lacey – selling lemonade by the side of the road, but otherwise very alone. Her grandmother, who had brought her up, passed a few months back. Lacey is now hoping someone will take her to the town where she hopes her sister and niece are still alive. Pilgrim hides the presence of Voice from Lacey, who has her own internal conflicts to deal with. Voice is fun – sarcastic and often right!

The ingredients of a post-apocalyptic road-movie seem to be all present and correct here. The gruff loaner on the bike. The spunky child who softens the loaner up. The gangs that take what they want, including women and children for their ‘pleasure’. The hick with a heart (or at least not so evil as the rest). A desperate character, running from something. A mythic figure who has risen from the ashes of the horrors.

As Pilgrim, who battles internally with Voice, and Lacey head into the unknown, a series of semi-predictable events lead them to picking up abuse survivor Alex, and come across the mysterious Red. This latter whispers the word defender, or maybe defend her, as she loses consciousness. But Red has escaped from a gang led by Charles and the sadistic Doc. They capture Alex and Lacey, and leave Pilgrim for dead. And this is where things start to get a little more interesting.

Suffice to say, there is a fair bit of nastiness and cruelty in Defender. Especially towards the women in the book. If G X Todd was male, this would be problematic at best. What Todd does is present the strength of the female characters throughout. They won’t be crushed by the men, even after such horrific abuse. The characters are all fairly likeable and rounded, despite looking a bit clichéd from a distance. Lacey, although just a child, wants to understand Pilgrim, and help Alex, as well as find her sister and niece. Pilgrim has a softer side.

The story is told from both Pilgrim’s and Lacey’s perspectives, which means that they don’t always know what’s going on, and why the apocalypse happened at all. They have doubts about this mythic figure – the Flitting Man. Part of the reason why I enjoyed Defender is because so little is explained. Todd’s world-building is fine and mostly exposition free. The reader learns only what the characters know. Todd mitigates the obvious references throughout. The journey, the horrors and the unexplained nature of our protagonists’ predicament echoes McCarthy’s The Road. I’m sure that the mysterious Flitting Man is a nod to Flagg in The Stand. In one scene, in a library (books should all have scenes in libraries of course), Pilgrim picks up Day of the Triffids, and I am Legend amongst others. Todd acknowledges the shoulders she stands on.

There isn’t a whole lot of depth and nothing new to learn about humanity here. The darkness is something we’ve all read before. The descriptions of the violence are standard fair. The premise is intriguing enough and the mystery surrounding it is nicely handled, while not being wow-inducing or particularly innovative. I’m still not 100% sure about the whole ‘defender’ thing either. Where is it going? What does it mean? Is there a point? The plot point that turns the book on its head isn’t hugely believable, but the conclusion is pleasing enough. The coda and the fact this is also known as The Voices #1 left me with an appetite to find out what happens next (see above re: defender), without being blown away. However, the interactions between Lacey, Pilgrim and Voice, along with Todd’s eminently readable prose style, makes Defender a worthwhile addition to the genre.

I received this e-book via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the birds in the skyThere are two ways, in fiction, to introduce something new and different to a reader; in style or in content. A creator, someone with a story to tell, and who wants to be the difference to everything else out there in a crowded speculative fiction market, must make a choice. The most accessible way to introduce something new and different is to write a traditional prose story, but with new and engaging content.

There’s nothing particularly new about a clash of ideologies within a narrative, but mash up some genres and critique binary thinking and you have All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Books and stories that defy labelling and mess with traditional boundaries of genre are becoming, thankfully, a lot more common. Which is probably an issue for booksellers, but for me, I can’t get enough. Over recent years I’ve praised the likes of Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (science fiction and Arabic mythology), the Dog-Faced Gods series by Sarah Pinborough (noir crime fantasy) and The Shining Girls and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (fantasy crime time travel and magical science fiction respectively). Into this mix comes the glorious All the birds in the sky.

Charlie Jane Anders is the editor-in-chief of popular science fiction and all-things-geeky website i09. All the birds in the sky is her debut novel, having previously had short fiction published on Tor.com and Strange Horizon. She has also been a juror for awards panels including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and for the Lambda Literary Awards. She is known to identify as a trans woman. All the birds in the sky is essentially a story about binary concepts and at first glance is pretty much black and white within its tropes: the protagonists are Patricia, a witch who as an affiliation with nature, and Laurence, a scientist who doesn’t. Woman, man, magic, science. If this was all the book was – a traditional science versus nature, man versus woman tale, it wouldn’t have the emotional wallop and interesting genre-blending insights that it does. It would have also descended, possibly, into a saviour or ‘the one’ theme, which it thankfully avoids.

Patricia is introduced to the reader when she is six years old. She is suffering a little from younger sister syndrome. An experience with a wounded bird brings her to a Parliament of Birds and a Tree. There is a mysterious question that she must answer in order to become a witch: Is a tree red? This question comes up at significant periods in the book. Ignorantly, I kept imagining it would be something to do with perception and it should be read, and therefore when it is dead and made into a book. I was delighted at the reveal. Meanwhile Laurence is a child-genius who builds a two-second time machine which helps avoids his bullies but has little else of merit. He is stifled by his parents, so runs off to a rocket launch where he meets Isobel and Milton, both of whom would play important roles in his life. Patricia and Laurence meet during adolescence at school. They are both having a rough time of it. They become friends, almost through necessity. They find out each other’s secrets, but Laurence especially, has a problem dealing with Patricia’s magic. Laurence, on the other hand, has been building a potential AI and it is Patricia who has a significant part to play. School days, in the book, aren’t given too many pages here, which I thought was a clever move. This is no Harry Potter, after all. Our protagonists are estranged and in their early adult life now.

Patricia is coming to terms with her powers and helping people, while being chided by her peers for being too aggrandising. Laurence has cast aside the AI project and is working with a group of equally genius scientists in a think tank. Meanwhile, the world is heading for oblivion. It is with this backdrop that most of the narrative unfolds. The magician and the scientist exist in different worlds, but they keep clashing and drifting apart, like waves on a beach. There are misunderstandings and reconciliations, relationships with other people and with each other. A forgotten plot point comes back to the fore, and you realise it was always there, just skilfully hidden. Patricia and Laurence are both outsiders who are drawn together through the pull of something much bigger than defined boundaries. They are mistrustful of each other’s natures but their feelings outweigh that mistrust. They both make plenty of mistakes and turn one way when they should have kept going straight on. And all the while, the birds are telling Patricia that it’s too late.

There are binary ideas throughout the book. For example, within the opposing camps, there are divides into two. In the magic camp, there are the Tricksters and the Healers – even to the point of having their own versions of Hogworts. The science types are less polarised, although the factions move between saving humanity or destroying it. There is no good versus evil or right versus wrong here. Females aren’t better than males – Patricia and her clan don’t think to ask an important question which as devastating consequences on Laurence. Males aren’t better than females. Laurence messes up a perfectly fine relationship due to his own insecurities. Both magic and science have flaws. And so they should. There is never an easy solution, never a clear route to success.

Charlie Jane Anders’ writing makes this book so very accessible. It is often said that it is very difficult to make something look easy. Anders’ previous experience in writing and living as transgender in a geek work might be the effort that makes this book a joy to read. My only real criticism is that this is very much a book of the moment. It does read, sometimes, as an ‘issue-of-the-day’ book, exemplified by the use of terms such as mansplaining. If some words and ideas fail to establish themselves beyond the zeitgeist, it could date the book quickly. The dialogue occasionally straddles the faddish and the genius. When it works, it is very naturalistic and honest, especially in the relationship scenes. Other times it is witty, which kinds of covers up some clunky exposition about wormholes and doomsday machines and such like. Which brings me to the world building. Considering that the world is going to an environmental and political hell-in-a-handbasket and considering that there are numerous complex muddy characters, there’s a significant lack of exposition. Characters don’t explain everything, either. When Patricia and Laurence are talking about dimensions, they both agree it is like the concept of Plato’s Cave. Anders doesn’t feel the need to explain that to the reader. She has faith in them that the either know, or they’ll go and look it up. This is common throughout. Certainly, there are hardly any info-dumps. Another one of the reasons why this book works. The superstorm (the main subtext is climate change) has devastating effects, for example, but Anders doesn’t tell us from a distance. It impacts characters’ lives, not just at the moment, but later in the book too.

Laurence makes a sacrifice that reminded me a little of Will and Lyra make at the conclusion of His Dark Materials. This passage elevates All the birds in the sky beyond just an interesting and successful endeavour in genre-busting speculative fiction, and into the realms of simply great storytelling. It’s what tugs on the heartstrings and moves the story beyond a clever entertainment. This book, it turns out then, isn’t about boy meets girl or magic versus science. It is not a fantasy; not a science fiction. It is a genre label-free zone. And it’s about all the messy, muddy colours that human lives actually are, and the natural if not vital conflicts within relationships.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton (1930)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg
“Lastandfirstmen firstedition”

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton builds on the work of past authors and leads to the ideas found throughout science fiction literature since. That sounds like a statement that could be made of an academic journal article. Deliberately so. This is a novel unlike anything else in the sense that it is presented as an academic’s popular history book. Only the author is from millions of years in the future.

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, to give it its full title, was written and published in 1930. My edition is the 2009 Gollancz Space Opera Collection. Which is a tad mis-leading. This is no space opera. Space opera requires characters, journeys, cultures and such like. In fact, in this there are barely any characters at all, and those that are written about are architypes, examples or occasional unique individuals.

What distinguishes, if anything, a book from a novel? A story from a narrative? These questions jostled around as I read First and Last Men. This book begins with the fictional introduction from one of the ‘last men’, setting context for what is about to come. Beginning then with the First Men, not long after what is known to us a World War I, with nods to the likes of Jesus and Socrates, the book describes various rivalries in Europe and between America and China. Interesting foresight or extrapolation and logic? The latter, if the rest of the book is taken as the whole. Humans eventually use up all the natural resources, leaving only a Patagonian Civilization, some 100,000 years in the future. A huge natural disaster leaves only 35 humans alive, on a science ship at the north pole. And so begins the cyclic future of humanity, where phoenix-like, a new species rises out of the ashes of an old, only to fall into the fire once more.

The scope of Stapleton’s work is extraordinary. It literally gives historical detail for most of the future races of man, plus some sub-species, lasting to the Eighteenth Man 2 billion years hence. Frustratingly, he uses ‘man’ throughout the work, suggesting that blinkered view of Homo sapiens being a maternal species is one thing that is fixed in stone. There is no suggestion of a paternal or non-binary gendered future for ‘mankind’! Thus ‘man’ has adventures along the way of course. There is the seemingly obligatory invasion from Mars (from much of the SF of this time), although an original take on the alien threat. Also, the only time there is any levity in the book, as the Martians misunderstand the nature of Earthly intelligence. As humanity moves forward through its history, there are obsessions with youth, with flying, with war, genetic engineering, music and more. Man changes appearance and size, and in the case of the Fourth Men, becomes giant brains that use the Third Men as lab rats. Oddly, something happens to the moon’s orbit and the surviving members of humanity venture to Venus for more alien encounters. The Seventh Men of Venus can fly. The Ninth Men relocate to Neptune where they eventually develop the ability to move the planet, as astronomical events threaten and then bring about eventual doom for all of mankind(s).

As mentioned, there are no characters in this book, with a few minor exceptions. It is written as a history book with academic analysis and some speculation. However, although dense with concepts and future facts, it reads like a novel. Life of humanity is the main character, and it undergoes a narrative journey, as a fictional character might in another story. It develops, grows, make mistakes, sometimes learns from them and moves on. Each time Stapleton dwells on a period, it is a different type of humanity. Which brings me to the past works mentioned earlier.

Last and First Men features utopic visions, reminiscent of More and Swift, dystopias of Shelley and Jefferies, Wells’ alien invasion, and the blatant generic manipulation as mentioned. There is so much depth to Stapleton’s ideas that as times they are both overwhelming and somewhat repetitive. He dwells on some areas and skips others, which is interesting. He often suggests that the reader can’t understand some aspects of future science and philosophy. And disappointingly, despite the huge time span of some of the species, and the development of ‘ether-ships’ which transported the species to Venus and Neptune, extra-solar flight is never achieved.

First and Last MenA key theme throughout the book is evolution, and genetic manipulation. I suspect that this is the first science fiction work since Frankenstein to address these concepts to blatantly. There is a great page towards the end of the book, when man is recently moved to Neptune. Stapleton describes the evolutionary progress of a sub-human rabbit-like species, and how natural selection works in its simplest form so this species would eventually give rise to the Tenth Men. Of course, for this to work, Stapleton had to give the book the immense time-scale required for the evolutionary process to work. He clearly knew the subject well.

There appears to be a couple of deux ex machina moments, when survival miraculously occurs, such as the 35 humans on the boat at the north pole. This might suggest that mankind is not destined to survive by its own agency alone. I can’t decide if this is (and also perhaps the ‘reader can’t understand the future’ sections) is lazy storytelling or a deliberate comment on man as an animal species. Stapleton does write at one point that ‘by accident, almost one might say by miracle, a spark of human life was once more preserved’. Maybe Stapleton thought man’s agency impotent? The mind-reading dénouement and the cultural effects on the moon are the weakest ideas in the narrative, meaning this book can’t be considered to complete success.

Last and First Men is a hard book to enjoy, reading as it does as an academic history book. Fascinating, yes. A novel with a narrative, yes. A story, maybe. Despite having no real characters to empathise with, for the most part I was engaged. A remarkable work of science fiction, definitely.

 

Image credit:

“Lastandfirstmen firstedition” by Derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg

What’s the point of Sci-Fi Book awards? Or, some great books I’ve read thanks to the Clarke Award.

Station Eleven proof.inddThe Hugo Award fiasco really upset me. Of course, the whole right wing bully-boy tactics is offensively stupid, but I’m not part of that world (thankfully) so I had little vested interest. Most people who were involved wrote about it far better than I even could. Seek out their words. What upset me more was everyone seemed to be arguing about what books were on the short-lists and which ones weren’t. No-one seemed to be taking about reading. The quality of the fiction. The passion of the stories (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t read anything about great genre fiction in relation to the Hugo nominations. Even though I’ve read Jim Butcher in the past (great first few novels then…bored now) I’ve no desire to read any of the shortlisted novels this year.

Does anyone care about reading anymore?

I like the Kitchies. They seem to me to highlight innovation. They are progressive and diverse. From this year’s shortlist, I’ve read and enjoyed Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor although I didn’t think it was amazing. No emotional resonance for me. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith, The Peripheral, by William Gibson and The Race, by Nina Allan are all on my to read list for this year. As for the debut category, I’ve read Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (see below), while Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and The Girl in the Road from Byrne are on my pile. While intriguing, Viper Wine (Hermione Eyre) doesn’t really appeal to me. Good lists and plenty of good stuff on there, but to my sensibilities (and like an indie music or film festival) there does seem to be an agenda of sorts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that notion, just to be clear, and if so, it is a good agenda (inclusive, diverse, innovative as I mentioned).

To me however, the Clarke Award appears to be just about the books. This year’s short list is:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. CareyThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’ve not read the first two and probably won’t. Carey’s is possible but it just isn’t grabbing my attention. I’ve read that Europe In Autumn is more of a sci-fi spy-fi techno-thriller type which isn’t really my bag. So, thoughts on the rest:

 

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North

To me, this reflects the genre-defying fiction that I love. It is really a time travel story without traditional science fiction time travel elements and reminded me a little of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls. However, it is character study. A lesson in choices. We all regret this choice or that one and in North’s story, Harry August gets to make different choices and also pre-empt the actions of choices to come. North’s prose is so very readable and the world she creates is so detailed and believable. One of those books that you never want to end because you enjoy being in it so much.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The same can be said of Station Eleven. It is a traditional science fiction trope – the end of the world caused by something as ordinary as flu, but told in a complex and gripping narrative style from varying points of view – including that of someone who wasn’t even around when the end comes. The idea of focusing on actors and musicians is unique – certainly in what I’ve read previously. Friendships, survival and religion are key themes. Again, the world Mandel’s creates with brilliant prose and intriguing characters is one (despite its horrors) where I just wanted to stay in. The way she combines the various threads of the narrative so they make sense without being over-blown is admirable. The ingredients are familiar, the recipe common, but the final meal is deliciously new.

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta

Itäranta’s debut appealed to me, although I hadn’t heard much about it. In a weird way, this could be set in the same world as Station Eleven although much further into the future, when the post-apocalyptic recovery is further along. Although in this case the cause was apparently environmental. Itäranta writes beautifully, especially considering it isn’t in her first language. Some of the sentences are pure poetry. “But water doesn’t care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.” Sadly, the story is somewhat lacking. The characters (who have complex and secretive relationships) and world building (I like the plastic graveyard motif) are fine but there was lots of set up which promised so much but never really delivered. I was more interested in the words than the story.

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’m about 2/3s through this excellent book. Almost directly opposed to the Memory of Water it is written in a straight forward manor but the story is so very engaging. I can’t wait to find out what happens. Essentially about the power of religion (so far) and trying to understand a new intelligent species on an alien planet, the corporation who has sent the pastor is represented by engineers and pharmacists who would be home on the Nostromo in Alien. It is intensely interesting and readable. I hope the ending is the one the reader deserves after 300+ pages.

Congratulations to the 2014 winner: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – which I think is awesome! A triumph of story-telling.

 

What I love about all four of these is that I’ve really enjoyed reading them. Not thinking about them for what they are or what they represent in the wider sense (short-listed literature). I’d read North’s book before the list was announced and Faber’s was on my pile to read. I probably would have stumbled across Station Eleven but I probably wouldn’t have known about Memory of Water. I was lost in all of these books. Proper joy of reading stuff. I read Mandel’s 330 pages in 4 days because I didn’t want to stop reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the conclusion but I wanted to keep reading forever. This is the power of great fiction and it is something that I believe gets lost in award season with all the perceived in-fighting and back-stabbing. Of course, the contradiction is that I wouldn’t have read the latter three on the above list quite so soon (if at all) had they not been short-listed.

So I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction and speculative fiction awards. They often point me in the direction of terrific stories and characters and introduce writers I might not have come across. But to me, they are missing the point of what good books are for and not celebrating the story as a thing itself enough.

 

Literary tricks: Thoughts after reading Day Four by Sarah Lotz.

Day FourFine lines. Brilliant fiction is often about fine lines.

I like a literary trick. I find them clever (I like clever). Providing they’re not at the expense of a plot. When the author is going all hey look at me, aren’t I clever but there’s no story, I’m not so keen. You can admire the effort but find the result and even the intention pretentious. Almost all fiction that I read, probably what anyone reads, is standard format: chapters and prose; first person or third. I often ache for something different, original, challenging. But again, not at the expense of story. When I read, story is paramount.

In Sarah Lotz’s The Three, which was presented as reportage, the ideas and plot where left open to interpretation. I was delighted by the book. It was a refreshing read, although not really a literary trick. Reportage is reasonably common in fiction. The Three, thankfully, defied genre and left questions unanswered. I was eager for more. When I started to read her follow up, Day Four (which incidentally can be read as a sequel or a standalone – no previous knowledge required) I thought, nice, she hasn’t tried to repeat herself. No, instead Lotz does something more rewarding.

The Three was a thriller which could be read in a variety of ways. When four planes crash with only three survivors, speculation is rife about what it might mean. Day Four is a more conventional tale of a disaster aboard a cruise ship. The first few chapters are, apparently, standard narrative. It is day four on the ship’s voyage. We meet a PA of a superstar medium. Then Gary; a man with a perverse secret. Next up is one of the ship’s crew – a chambermaid called Althea. By now I thought I wouldn’t like this one so much. Straight forward pot-boiler and lots of characters it would take a while to get to know. I sometimes struggle with novels that begin with multiple viewpoints because each time a chapter begins it feels like a new book is beginning. These things take time. The next chapter features a couple of elderly women. The one after, a medic called Jesse, who has a dubious past. And then Devi, another member of the ship’s crew. Oh, and now we’re into day five and there’s a blog post. This is a lot of POVs. And then we’re back with the PA and the chapter headings are repeating. Intriguing.

So the ship is floating without power and the passengers and crew are becoming restless. Weird shit goes down, although we as readers, are never spoon-fed. Each chapter, from the POV of each character, moves the plot on nicely without repetition or cliché. As one chapter ends, the next takes place a few moments later, but without telegraphing or an obvious handing over of the baton. Lotz’s skill is to make us care about each character, although we spend precious little time with them, while presenting an intriguing plot, with more questions than answers. The skill is also to forget the literary trick and simply follow the narrative. The feel of the book is more of a classic ghost story with a medium as the conduit for the action, although there are hints of other weirdness going on. I’m not usually a fan of the page-turner, the pot-boiler or what-ever you might call it, but I couldn’t put Day Four down. When the coda comes along, again in a changed format, I hadn’t an inkling of what was going on. When the denouement presented itself I was more than happy to go along with it because Lotz had proved herself to me. I wasn’t being played with. I was being told a decent story in a captivatingly different way.

Day Four isn’t a profound novel. It doesn’t say a whole lot about the human condition that hasn’t been said elsewhere. It’s not a particularly original story either. The sub-text, as with The Three, is minimal – people are basically animals. But it comes with an ending that makes you reflect on the story and the style of writing as a whole (and whether or not a sequel follows I’m happy with my own council). However, it is an interesting story, without being stuck up its own arse. This fiction stays on the right side of a fine line. It isn’t brilliant, but is highly enjoyable and eminently readable. What elevates it into something more is the interesting style. Lotz’s isn’t going on about how clever an author she is – and she is clever – but she can write a readable story in an attention-grabbing style. And for that, I thank her.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

War of the WorldsReading an old favourite that you’ve not read for years and believe you’re familiar with is potentially problematic. I hadn’t read The War of the Worlds for more than 20 years. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it. Wells originally published the novel in serialised form in 1897, and the book made its appearance the following year. My copy is my old and dog-eared 1975 Pan edition which I’ve had since I was a child. There are no notes, introductions or comments in this edition.

The plot to The War of the Worlds is a familiar one to most: Martians land in Victorian England and slowly take over London, while our narrator fights to survive. You must acknowledge the classic status of such as novel. Throughout the book, sentences and descriptions fire the memory and bring a smile to my face. I had a shiver of excitement when I read the first few paragraphs. Later, when I read It was the beginning of rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind, I thought it might be the greatest sentence I’ve ever read. Probably not, but you take my meaning.

Of course, when you open the book and see the chapters listed, you know the eventual outcome of the so-called war. You read the book understanding that the narrator survives – this is no unreliable narration.

The narrator is unnamed and appears to be an expert in philosophy. After explosions are witnessed on Mars, an object lands at Horsell Common, close to the narrator’ house. At first, it is thought to be a meteorite, but when the lid screws off and aliens emerge, all hell breaks loose. Soon, death and destruction are reigned upon the watchers thanks to the famous heat-ray. Now, the narrator’s wife is sent away and the adventures ensue, while more alien craft from Mars land in the Home Counties. The descriptions of the devastating attack on London, and the intervention of the iron-clad warship Thunderchild are told through the reportage of the narrator’s brother. I’d completely forgotten about the brother’s perspective – probably tainted by other versions of the story. Again, the fact that the narrative is told in this way, and includes descriptions of Martian anatomy, gives the reader no-doubt about the eventual victor. History is always written by the victors: especially the history of war. Wells was clearly aware of this fact. He has plenty to say about real war and he uses this novel and others to highlight both its horrors and its impact. He believes it to be horrific. The Martians destroy everyone and everything. There is no room for negotiation or surrender. War is awful.

Wells also attacks religion in The War of the Worlds. One character, a curate, is shown to be weak under god. He questions the plans of the divine, which mirror the concerns of the time. How can a just creator inflict the pain of war? Even the curate questions his maker? His evangelical mania leads to his death.

The over-riding theme, however, is the Imperialism of England; shown in reflection to some extent. This invasion isn’t really about England but London. The Martians only land around London and move inward. Slowly. It amuses the reader in modern times that the initial landing and destruction takes place on a Friday and it isn’t until Sunday evening when most folks in London realise the implications. No instant communication channels at the end of the 19th century. So the island is invaded and the rest of the world continues as normal in a time after the real island had invaded huge chunks of the planet. And when the hordes panic through the streets of London, it is described as the end of civilisation. Book 2 is even called The Earth Under the Martians when in reality it was London and the Home Counties under the Martians, and nothing more. It is curious to know that while this horror falls down on London, most of the rest of the planet was oblivious. Maybe Wells thought London was the centre of the world or maybe he was satirising those others who did.

In the opening pages Wells acknowledges the story concerns the vanity of man. The topics are evolution and technological progress. This is a warning text. Wells suggests several times that the science of the age might be beyond man at the time. The recovered artefacts from the invasion are not able to be reverse engineered. And yet man is described as a curious beast. Of course, the topic of evolution was hotly debated through Victorian times and Wells had plenty to say on matter too (having been taught by Huxley); suggesting that human evolution might eventually lead to creatures similar in intellect but emotionless as the invaders. Is evolution a good thing? It is undeniable, but we must take care. The narrator only survives through several moments of luck and chance, and he acknowledges as much throughout. Does fortune favour the brave or is luck indiscriminate? Despite his education, he is an everyman, a decent ordinary citizen. How are we to read this juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary in context with scientific advancement?

Public Domain

There a lots of lovely nuances in the text, reflecting Wells’ time. It is important to mention the fact that a man’s appearance was significant, even though his unkempt appearance was because a hat had fallen in the Martian’s initial pit. But Wells also uses poetic description (I had the sunset in my eyes) for its own sake. The horrors he describes are imaginative and not like anything written before. The way the Martians feed is brilliantly simply. As usual in novels from this time, the female characters receive short-shrift. Indeed, other than a few brief appearances of the narrator’s wife and some women his brother must save, there are none. Wells wasn’t telling a story about people however, perhaps highlighted by the fact none of the main characters has a name in the story.

As the book concludes, all the narrative and thematic strands are tied up as the Martians are defeated not by man’s ingenuity or guile, but by micro-organisms and disease. Man isn’t the victor despite regaining his home.

The War of the Worlds is the first mainstream science fiction book to feature an alien invasion, allowing the author to comment on the social topics of the time: religion, scientific advancement, imperialism and war. Wells does an exceptional job in such as short text. Not only does it address political and social concerns of the times in a proper science fiction setting, it is simply a great read. No wonder it is one of the most significant science fiction novels of all time.

On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

Hang Wire, by Adam Christopher

There is a fairly common assertion that a work of fiction belongs to a particular genre. When authors try to bend genres or combine styles, some people get a bit jittery. I’ve read a couple of attempts at cross-genrefication that haven’t been successful, in my opinion. They always focus too much on the wrong thing.

Hang WireSo, after a dozen or so pages of Adam Christopher’s Hang Wire, I was getting worried that this would be another one of those failures. Glad to say I was wrong on almost every level.

We begin our story in San Francisco, 1906. We’re in the middle of an earthquake; the earthquake. Robert is caught in it. But he’s not behaving normally. Is he helping? Is he lifting huge slabs of debris? Now it is 1889 and what will become Oklahoma. Joel is travelling west, seeking his fortune. He has a coin and comes across a cave. Something draws him inside. Now we’re in San Francisco again, this time the present. Something odd has just happened to Ted, involving a fortune cookie. He’s also sleepwalking, which is a concern.

And then there’s a circus which has mysterious acts such as Highwire (no-one sees his face) and a tribe of Celtic fire dancers who, when no-one is looking, appear to drag naked, ash-clad women out of the earth. Meanwhile, something is stirring beneath the city. Another big earthquake perhaps? Bob, who dances half-naked on the beach for the pleasure of tourists, knows something is coming. Something like last time. While all this is going on, someone, or something, is murdering young women and tying them up with steel cable: the Hang Wire Killer.

Now that’s a lot of story. We also follow Joel in a series of interludes as he searches out various items on a murderous spree across both time and the USA. We get a sense that this is all being driven by an alien presence. Ah, so this is literary science fiction. A story told through the ordinary lives of its characters.

To be honest, I think Hang Wire could be a little longer. That might seem like an odd criticism. It takes 55 pages (out of more than 350) before a character makes a second appearance: that’s 3 prologues (2 of which almost feel like short stories in their own right) and 3 full chapters before Ted pops up again. There is a lot of story and it needs time, especially during the latter parts of the novel. The first half of the book is fine, better than fine. It slowly reveals itself to be what it really is. My first thought was an attempt at literary superhero fiction. Urgh! Well, it has costumed protagonists with powers looking for a serial killer with impossible strength, all told via character vignettes.

I find literary fiction dull, but Hang Wire, once you get with the characters, is anything but. They start to reveal the truth about themselves, and you can see how all the stories and incidents are connected. Christopher is very adept at bringing these together. It becomes almost Lovecraftian in its menace. It reveals itself to be a fantasy above all else. And yet you can’t work out whether the mythology is a real-world one or Christopher’s invention. I kept wanting to Google the answer, but refrained until I completed the book.

Once the characters are revealed and Joel’s story comes to a conclusion, the climax of the book seems a little rushed. I would have liked more time exploring the mythologies of the characters, and why they were in San Francisco. However, then it might have ended up being unfairly compared to other works of fiction exploring similar ideas.

Christopher has compiled a very interesting and tantalising mythology with some good writing and some interesting characters. The relationships between Ted and Alison, and Ted and Benny could have been fleshed out a little further, however. I’m not sure that giving the mysterious acrobat the name Highwire works. Surely, as he was why people were coming to the circus, he would have been the number 1 suspect to being the Hang Wire killer, but the police don’t pursue that line of enquiry.

The success of Hang Wire, however, is that it feels like an old story, but one told in a fresh and relevant way. Which to me means it is excellent storytelling. It could be read as almost anti-science or anti-science fiction even (anti- as in opposite, not against), reflecting past-times when horrors such as earthquakes and comets were explained by supernatural events.

So, what is Hang Wire? A very good piece of storytelling. A damn fine read. Its label doesn’t matter.

First published on Geek Syndicate: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/2013/12/26/book-review-hang-wire/

Half Term Report 2013

I’ve read some books. I tend to do that. Let’s look at what I’ve read in the first 6 months of 2013, which by the way, is not enough. Probably.

12875162I’ve read a bunch of comics and graphic novels. Which is not a surprise but not the point of this post.

I’ve read a few bits of none fiction:

David Miller – Peter Cushing, Will Stor – Heretics, Francis Ween – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, Scarlett Thomas – Monkeys with Typewriters, Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma. One book on writing which was great. I even did the exercises. One book on an actor who lived where I live and would have been 100 years old this year. And some books on various aspects of culture. All good, none great.

One collection of short stories crossed my path, and I read an individual short story: Chris Beckett’s collection, The Peacock Cloak, was interesting and enjoyable. Ian Sales’ The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself was refreshing.

16 bits of fiction in 6 months. I’d read 19 in the first six months of 2012. Not good enough? Well, 2 in particular took ages because I found them dull. Really dull. Disappointing. So, in some kind of order:

  • Mary Shelley – The Last Man 1.5/5Angelmaker
  • Benedict Jacka – Fated 2/5
  • Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden 2/5
  • Clifford Beal – Gideon’s Angel 3/5
  • Paul Cornell – London Calling – 3/5
  • Tom Holt – Doughnut 3/5
  • Cory Doctorow – Pirate Cinema 3/5
  • Nick Harkaway – Angelmaker 3.5/5
  • Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross  – The Rapture of the Nerds 3.5/5
  • Chris Beckett – Dark Eden – 3.5/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – Poison 4/516094514
  • Martin Millar – The Good Fairies of New York 4/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – The Shadow of the Soul 4/5
  • G Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen 4/5
  • Juli Zeh – The Method 4/5
  • Jeff Noon – Vurt 5/5

17401136Which I think is a bit disappointing. The best book I’ve read so far this year is one of my all time favourites which was the third time I’d read it. Generally disappointed by the books that had been hyped up, especially the Cornell, the Harkaway (but then I wasn’t overly keen on his debut either) and the Jacka. I was massively disappointed by The Child Garden and The Last Man. In fact, the latter put me off my SF challenge, although I hope to get back on the horse soon. Also less than totally impressed by Doctorow’s entries. On the other hand, couple of good Sarah Pinboroughs. The Wilson and the Zeh were enjoyable and the most satisfying reads so far. Out of the 16, only 6 really enjoyable reads. So maybe my choices have been poor? I’m influenced by the books I’m asked to review, reviews in SFX and other places, and books on shortlists for awards. I’m thinking about knocking the whole awards-influenced reading on the head.

Quick look at the breaksdown: 8 science fiction, 5 urban fantasy, 2 fantasy and 1 comic fantasy. No horror. No none-genre.  Meh.

Let’s hope that the next 6 months do me more favours. I have a number of books on the ‘to read’ pile which I have high hopes for:

  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

 I also hope to pick up the new Lauren Beukes and Neil Gaimen. I also plan to re-read American Gods. I will try to get a hold of Adam Robert’s Jack Glass and Blackout by Mira Grant.

So here’s to the second half of 2013.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Imagine the scenario. Today: debut science fiction novel causes sensation and the author widely regarded as a visionary. Tomorrow: same author sets the follow up story 200 years in the future, but nothing has changed. There has been no progress in science or culture. All there is to be found is a sense of arrogance that the society of today has reached its peak and there is nowhere else to go. Welcome to The Last Man.

849585I picked up (and downloaded) my copy of the Wordsworth Classic edition of Shelley’s The Last Man – originally published in 1826 – with eager anticipation. After all, Frankenstein is one of my favourites and I’ve only recently re-read it. I also love a good apocalyptic tale. Imagine my crushing disappointment and prolonged struggle to read these 375 pages. As usual, no attention was paid to notes and the introduction (other than the author’s introduction – she says that in 1818 she discovered some prophetic writings in Sibyl’s caves, near Naples, and this book is her version of those writings) as the idea is to read each story in this challenge as it was intended to be read at the time of publication.

The cover blurb speaks of an ‘apocalyptic fantasy’ and the ‘end of human civilisation’. What we actually get is a rather dull character piece about Adrian, Raymond and Lionel (the narrator) who the cover suggests are ‘idealised portraits of Shelley and Byron’ (with Lionel therefore being Mary). However, I know little about the lives of these men, so can’t comment on their portrayal. The book is laid out in 3 volumes. The first mostly concerns itself with the comings and goings of the upper classes as the monarchy crumbles and England becomes a republic. Nothing but political and familial machinations. Bearing in mind this is set sometime after 2073…there is a war between Greece and Turkey, which is the main background to volume 2, as Lionel and Raymond head to Constantinople to fight. There is talk of reports of a plague within the city, which is around about the half way mark of the book, and the first hints of any apocalyptic writing. The characters all return to England as news reaches them that the plague has began its spread around Europe. It is now 2092. Volume 3 has only a few survivors left in England, and a decision is made to leave, in order to find a piece of land with a better climate and protection from the plague. They visit France where a fanatical religious sect believes in a messiah who will protect them from disease. This journey takes the band, which was more than 1500 on leaving England and is now just 4, to Switzerland. Soon, events lead to Lionel being the last man alive, in 2100, where the story ends. Throughout the tale, lines of poetry are thrown in for reasons unknown, which are nice on their own, but only serve to irritate within the context of the plot. Shelley showing off…

Mary Shelley’s arrogance is astounding. Despite having demonstrable knowledge in science and progress, she believes the time she lives in is the pinnacle of culture and evolution. Horse is the main form of transport and people communicate with letters. The class system puts the intellectual and moneyed elite above everyone else (a shepherd is described as ‘an unlettered savage’ early on). Nepotism and favour are rife. The British Empire still rules. Women are subservient. The richest and therefore most powerful are the last to survive. These would all be acceptable features in an alternative history novel, or a satire, when the foibles and folly of these ideologies were explored. However, what Shelley does instead is write paragraph after paragraph, page after page of descriptions; both of emotion and environment. It took more than a volume before personal procrastination ended, and the alleged point of the story (the annihilation of mankind) even begins. Which is a shame, because individual sentences were often beautifully written. There were just far too many of them, slowing the narrative to a snail’s pace.

There is no allusion to science fiction anywhere through the prose. In fact, it often feels like a biblical fantasy. War is a dominant them, alongside the plague (or pestilence). One character in particular, Evadne, suffers from starvation. And of course there is death everywhere. Four horseman anyone? Or course, plague means disease which means nature versus science. In this case, obviously, science looses out, but for me, these elements are not looked at with any depth or rigour. These elements are nothing but a bi-product of the meandering musings of someone talking about characters and the time they live in, rather than any true speculation on where the future lies. The only scientist mentioned, astronomer Merrival, is a bit-player at best. The Last Man is not science fiction, despite being the first apocalyptic novel set in the future. There is nothing that happens in the novel that could have prevented it from being set in 1826.

One thing in particular rankled me. Ok, it is the future and Shelley has not advanced technology at all. Populations across Europe are known to die. But here’s the thing. There is – because there can’t be (letters, remember) – any communication on a global scale. There is no indication throughout that the plague is affecting anywhere except Europe. At best, Lionel is The Last Man in Europe, but even that is not clear. There is no word from Spain, or Scandinavia for example. If Shelley had advanced communications technology so global communication was possible, and Lionel knew he was the last man, that would have been a far more chilling climax.

I would have also preferred more of the story to focus on the plague and the survival (or not) of the human species. It almost reads like Shelley decided to write about her friends and then half way through realised she was just rambling and decided to throw in a deux ex machina in order to find a conclusion in the narrative. There is too much coincidence and happenstance in the plot to make the story either enjoyable or engaging. In one passage, Shelley even suggests the reader would tire of the description of the journey from Paris to Geneva (p319). No! It would be more interesting than anything that came before it. That is why I was interested in reading an apocalyptic story in the first place. The story of the how the 1,500 ‘souls’ became just 4 would have been a better book. It is only in the last 20 pages, Lionel (Shelley herself?) is the last man. Which is not what I expected at all. Shame.