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

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

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

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

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957)

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

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

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

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

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

Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (2013)

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

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

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

The Shore by Sara Taylor (2015)

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

The Gradual by Christopher Priest (2016)

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

The Rift by Nina Allan (2017)

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

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

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Top non-male protagonists in speculative fiction

Under_the_Skin_FaberHaving recently read some terrific new novels from the likes of Becky Chambers, Frances Hardinge, and an old favourite from Nicola Griffith, it seemed appropriate to highlight my top genre fiction featuring non-males as the main protagonist. There are of course, some brilliant female characters and feminist books such as Le Guinn’s The Left Hand of Darkness or the many women starring in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (Martin) but these are still told from the male point of view in most cases.  Non-binary genders are slowing filtering into the genre too. It saddens me that something like these words is even required, but even today, there is an uneven gender-balance within the starring roles of genre fiction.

The first example of non-male genderness in genre fiction that I’ve come across is Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928). The plot starts with the lead as a male but for no reason other than the need to tell the ideological story, he becomes a she. Not hugely keen on the book in terms of story, but hugely important in terms of context. So, because it was a meandering rather than a tight plot, it only comes recommended for completists. Sadly, too, there aren’t too many others that I’ve come across written after Woolf’s work and pre-twenty first century.

There have been plenty female villains in literature but rarely is an original story told from their point-of-view. Step forward the enigmatic alien in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000). Isserley wanders around the Scottish countryside picking up hitchhikers for nefarious purposes. It’s all about farming on the surface, but scratch and you see the themes of sexism and sexual identity. Isserley isn’t obviously alien from the outset, just odd, and Faber’s writing adds to the mystery of her origins and intentions. She sees the world through innocent eyes, beautifully described. Her ending is not something you’d expect and completes her path from dark villain to complex shades of grey. Maybe no villain after all.

One of my favourite protagonists was introduced in The Eyre Affair in 2001 by Jasper Fforde. Thursday Next, for it is she, is a literary detective and quite unlike any other characters I’ve read. She exists in a meta-complexity of alternative realities and fictional worlds where she can travel through the pages of real fiction. Despite all this, she has a family life and a pet Dodo, which is enough to make anyone smile. She has a difficult life, balancing the mundane and the extraordinary, but always stands tall in the end. Thursday leads the reader on a journey through the importance of fiction and character, with humour and agency. There is so much joy to be had in reading the adventures of Thursday Next. 7 books worth!

The Shining GirlsKathy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) is an oddly cold character from the outset. From the very detached and distant opening likes, you’re never quite sure of her. She describes her childhood in the traditional-sounding boarding school but from the outset, something clearly isn’t right, both with Kathy and her friends (Ruth and Tommy), and the world she lives in. Once the children’s destiny is revealed, and Kathy moves out with the others, aged 16, she shuns the easy option of falling in love – even though she is attracted to Tommy – and becomes a carer. Kathy’s character is one of self-sacrifice and genuine care, and is someone who brings a tear to eye.

The Scar (2002) by China Miéville is set in the universe of Bas-Lag, which is a magical steam-punk alien science fiction extravaganza. Following on from Perdido Street Station (2000), is tells the story of Bellis Coldwine. She, like Kathy, is a cold character. A linguist, she finds herself on the run after being accused of connections to the events in the previous novel. While she finds events and people try and manipulate her life, she still remains vital in both character and in terms of the book working. Without having much of her own agency, she is still strong throughout.

I adore Kalix the Werewolf from Martin Millar’s trilogy. She is a tiny goth girl who just wants to be left alone but events conspire to make her life hell. Not surprising, when she’s a fierce werewolf from a proud clan, and has to deal with inter-dimensional elementals, fairies, her wannabe pop-star sisters, a murderous guild of werewolf hunters and the fashion industry. What’s not to love? First introduced in Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007), Kalix is moody and shy, and probably suffering from depression – addicted to drugs and a self-harmer. But thanks to Millar’s staccato prose, vivid descriptions and wonderful storytelling, you can’t help but fall for her and want to protect her, but at the same time fear her and be in awe of her. Kalix is the epitome of the struggling teen outsider coming to grips with the world and her responsibilities as she approached adulthood. A wonderful character full of courage to be herself.

The main protagonist of The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes could easily have been a victim in lesser hands. Kirby Mazrachi is one of the titular girls hunted by time-travelling serial killer Harper Curtis. But instead of lying down, she stands up and fights to work out the truth about what happened to her and the other girls. By definition, Kirby has to be smart and full of potential – shining – but she has a complex personality which is not only based on her perceived victimhood. And boy is she resilient. She just won’t be that victim. Nor should she. Harper is a despicable character.

These girls and women deserve to be read about, deserve to be heard about, and thanks to the great writing of both men and women as outlined, are out there in the world. In their own ways, each of them helped me open my eyes and see things both in myself and the people around me. And after all, that’s what great fiction and great characters are all about.

Kalix

Honourable mentions must go to of course Marghe in Ammonite (Nicola Griffith, 1993) who finds herself and love after a series of personal conflicts and trials, and Rosemary, the brilliantly ordinary lead who shines the light on others in the diverse The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Becky Chambers, 2015); both of whom have made me think more about the roles of women in fiction. Other great characters and books to recommend include A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki, 2013) which is from the perspective of a 16-year old girl in Japan who finds wisdom and an American, Ruth; Cuckoo Song (Frances Hardinge, 2014) starring Triss who has an odd hunger and a tenacious desire to find the truth; The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne, 2014) which is also a story of search for truth, from Meena’s point of view and of becoming a woman, from Mariama’s; The End of Mr Y (Scarlett Thomas, 2006) in which Ariel journeys through the mysteries of mind-reading, quantum physics and homeopathy with a post-modernist twist; and Sunshine (Robin McKinley, 2003), featuring Rae, who battles vampires while making cakes.

End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

Sexism and Genre Fiction

I’ve been reading about sexism and SF a lot lately. Today I read Julie Crisp’s post ‘Sexism in genre publishing: a publisher’s perspective’. Interesting and probably a fair point. I thought that while I was more interested in the novel and the story than the author, I was fairly balanced in the gender ratio of authors I read. So I trish pub photo medlooked at my GoodReads list and looked at my favourite authors, and it turns out I’m a bit rubbish. Only about 28% of my favourite authorsportrait_pp or the authors of my favourite books are not male. These are my favourite female authors (or authors of favourite books): Atwood, Beukes, Brite, Clarke S, Friedman, Grant, Griffin, Griffith, Le Guin, Jackson, McKinley, Pinborough, Russell, Shelley, Sullivan, Thomas, Wilson G. W.

For the record, favourite male authors are: Adams, Barker, Bear, Bester, Bradbury, Burroughs, Card, Carroll, Clarke A C, Dick, Doctorow, Farmer, Fforde, Gaiman, Gibson, Goldman, Grimwood, Haig, Heinlein, Huston, Huxley, Ishiguro, Joyce, Keyes, King, MacLeod, McCarthy, Miéville, Millar M, Murakami, Niven, Noon, Orwell, Pohl, Priest, Pullman, Rankin R, Roberts A, Smith MM, Tolkien, Wells, Wyndham, Yamada.

I’d be interested in the gender balance of other genre readers.

Now. As a rule. No. As an absolute, I chose the books I read because

  1. I’m a fan of the writing of the author (ok, circular argument – my bad),
  2. I read a good review (usually in SFX, Geek Syndicate or Book Geeks),
  3. I seek out books from awards shortlists or
  4. I’m offered a book to review.

Of all the authors listed about, only a couple I’ve discovered by chance, and only a couple if sort out because I’ve read short stories. Sarah Pinborough is a good example of the former, thanks to Twitter, and Nicola Griffith being the best example of the latter, after reading a short story anthology (The Best of Interzone).

Only once or twice in my reading life, have I made choices based on the gender of the author (Griffith and Mary Doria Russell) so why is my gender split 30/70 in 4007favour of men? I’ve just looked at the SFX online book review site: http://www.sfx.co.uk/category/reviews/ and the first 10 fiction reviews are all male authors (on 11 Jul. 13). Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide To New York City is the first female mention.

So, I think that yes, genre fiction is inherently sexist. Crisp says it’s not the publishers fault. That may be true. I follow a lot of agents and editors on Twitter and many are female. So do you blame SFX and the like? Do you blame readers such as me? Others are working hard to redress the balance, such as SF Mistressworks. So if I don’t look at the gender of the author before I read a book, why do I choose more men? I’d love to know…

Thoughts on Christopher Priest & the Arthur C Clarke Award

Three statements:

1. I love Priest’s novels
2. I hate awards (book, music, film)
3. I take a lot of interest in the Arthur C Clarke Award

Maybe that’s a contradiction, but it’s not a personal bias. I love independent film but hold no truck with Sundance or Cannes. I’m never influenced to listen to any music because it’s won a Mercury or a Grammy. I’m interested in the Booker, but only because I feel its not representative of what people read and oddly, I’ve no time for the BSFA award. Yet every year I try to read all the Clarke Award shortlist titles that I’ve not already read. I don’t know why.

Priest’s novels (those that I’ve read), are intelligent, original, well written and engaging. I’ve always thought of him as a progressive champion of speculative fiction.

Then I read his blog post. Harumph.
Pat Cardigan suggests on Twitter that it is tantamount to bullying and has sent a letter to The Guardian on the matter.

His argument, in my opinion, is disingenuous, and has led to a personal conflict. As mentioned in my previous piece, I was delighted that Lauren Beukes won in 2011 as I thought she was original and progressive. I was also disappointed that Priest’s The Islanders wasn’t included and Mieville’s Embassytown was. My argument was that the shortlist this year was less progressive. On reflection, however, I should have made more of the point that Embassytown just isn’t that good of a story and while clever, not so well written. From the shortlisted titles, The End Specialist was a decent story with entertaining characters.

Priest has condemned and criticized the authors represented on the shortlist. His argument is that 2011 was a poor year generally because of ‘genre orthodoxies’ and unambitious fantasies. I think that might be a fair criticism from someone like Priest about the general state of fiction, but I’m not so convinced, on reflection, that it matters in this case. Some of the most enjoyable books I’ve read over recent years have been full of clichés and genre orthodoxies. The Matthew Swift books by Kate Griffin spring to mind. How many books before these have a magical London hidden from view of the public? I’m guessing Priest would find them tedious, but they are, in my opinion, the best urban fantasy out there. He suggests that we want the best writer to win. Do we? I don’t think so. I think we want the best novel. The best story. The best book, regardless of all other considerations.

I’m not going to dally over his childish and frankly ludicrous assassination of other writers and, worse, his abuse of the Clarke Award panel. Pat Cardigan does that with greater dignity than I could ever manage. What I would say, however, is that I’m not convinced it’s sour grapes. The vitriol seems too harsh. I would welcome an explanation of his comments, however, as I’m not sure. He is known as a highly opinionated individual. Maybe his novels are only possible with that personality? In my opinion, The Islanders was the best books released in 2011 that I’ve read.

Surely, however, the point of an award such is this is not to promote new and progressive authors and novels just for the sake of it. Of this I’m changed my mind. It should be a simple case of the 6 (and then the 1) best and most enjoyable reads of the years. I don’t think that the shortlist for the year represents that, but hey, this in an opinion of mine. The opinion of the panel is different. I’m not alone in my thoughts either. Nina Allan’s well written piece has a similar point made by Priest and some others, but without the undue personal attacks. I think she is right, but for some wrong reasons. Or maybe I’m missing the point, and maybe that’s why I don’t like awards in general and should keep my nose out of this one too. Maybe its not for the best book, but it is for the most progressive or original or politically prudent book (although if that were the case, surely The Islanders would have been shortlisted?). Whatever the reason, it sure has stirred up a lot of comment, debate and publicity. Maybe that’s what the Arthur C Clarke Award is for?

This is what I did in 2011

This is my end of year review. This is not the top 10 books released in 2011. Mostly because I suspect I have yet to read some of the better books released last year. I tend to not read hardbacks where possible and I always seem to be playing catch up, as I read older novels and a lot of non-fiction too. This, then, is a roundup of the best fiction I read in 2011, regardless of when they were released.

So, in no particular order…

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is the story of a group of teenagers in San Francisco who are caught up in a terrorist attack. The city is turned into a police state and the protagonists are embroiled in civil liberties, online networks based on Xbox and Linex and, of course, teen love. Doctorow’s usual themes of creative license (indeed the novel is available free on his website under a Creative Commons license), collaboration and community are all on show, but I think this is his best work. It is tight, well plotted and with interesting characters with genuine motivations. It speaks to me, even though I’m 20 years older than the lead characters.

You can read what I think about Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Islanders by Christopher Priest, Neon Court by Kate Griffin, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, Dervish House by Ian McDonald and Generosity by Richard Powers elsewhere. Of the bunch, Beukes’ Arthur C Clarke Award winner was the most original piece I’ve read this year. Super Sad True Love Story is a story that rings very true with modern society, or rather where it’s heading. I actually enjoyed Hyperion the most, in terms of not wanting to put it down, closely followed by the third title of Griffin’s Matthew Swift series. In my opinion (with the caveat that I have lived in London), Neon Court and its predecessors are the best examples of urban fantasy I’ve read. I admire the depth of Dervish House, the imagination of The Islanders and concept of Generosity.

The last two books on my list for 2011 are both very different types of zombie novel. Of course, zombies are the new vampires, blah blah blah, but both these are excellent variations on the standard tale. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the only romantic zombie novel I’ve read, and the only one from the zombie’s perspective. It features a zombie who, after biting into the brains of a young man, begins to have very un-zombie-like feelings towards Julie, the man’s girlfriend. There is plenty of zombie apocalypse action and gives an excellent rational for the zombie attraction to human brains. It is a very ‘warm’ piece of fiction. Mira Grant’s Deadline is less of a zombie novel and more of a science fiction tale of how media has changed and of government control. The second book in the Newsflesh trilogy follows Shaun Mason, who is the reluctant head of a news blogging organisation following the death of his sister, Georgia, in the previous episode. However, a CDC researcher fakes her own death and with the zombie apocalypse seemingly in its second wave, Shaun suddenly has reasons to lead his team again, despite the odd relationship he has with Georgia. The back story of why zombie’s are prowling around is intricately detailed and thoroughly believable. The writing is eminently readable. The whole novel is simply great.

I’ve read some great books this year and fortunately, not many stinkers. Mostly because there are some great books around and I’ve not got time or inclination to read anything that hasn’t had a decent review somewhere. So, some honourable mentions include The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (one of the few genre titles to make a Booker Long List in recent years), The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (it was a shame I guessed the ending early on), The Silent Land by Graham Joyce and Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite (old school vampire story). I was most disappointed my Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (meh) and Thomas More’s Utopia (less of a story, more of a rant).

Under the same argument, but without any detail, the graphic novels I’ve most enjoyed this year are Walking Dead 1, 1985, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Hellboy. Conqueror worm, The dead boy detectives, Arkham Asylum : a serious house on serious earth, The Authority : relentless, Marvels, Bloody carnations, Akira 6. I liked them. Isn’t that enough? I also thoroughly enjoyed The Strange Talent of Luthor Strode and managed to completely avoid DC’s New52.

In the spirit of the season, although technically outside the remit of this blog, the films I’ve particularly enjoyed this year include Splice, Rec 2, Captain America, Last Night, Thor, Summer Wars, Paul, Wake Wood, Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec, The Troll Hunter, Frailty, Toy Story 3, Source Code, Hanna, Black Swan, Attack the Block, Super 8, X Men First Class and Never Let Me Go. I think I enjoyed The Troll Hunter, X-Men, and Never Let Me Go the most. I also thoroughly enjoyed BBC3’s The Fades. I was mostly disappointed with this year’s Dr Who, although I did love Neil Gaimen’s The Doctor’s Wife.

So, what am I looking forward to in 2012. Don’t know. I like to see what reveals itself as and when. Clearly, there are some great superhero films coming out this year. I’m looking forward to visiting a couple of conventions too. As for books: Mieville’s Embassytown, Ready Player One by Cline, By Light Alone by Roberts, The Radleys by Haig, Allison Hewitt Is Trapped by Roux and Zone One by Whitehead. I will of course, read the Clarke award shortlist titles if I haven’t already, whatever they may be.

 

2011 Arthur C Clarke Award – What did I think?

Congratulations to Lauren Beukes for the remarkable Zoo City; winner of the 25th Arthur C Clarke Award. Congratulations to the other nominees as well: BSFA 2011 best novel The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, Generosity by Richard Powers, Declare by Tim Powers and Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan.

I try to read the nominees every year, although I rarely manage to get through all of them in time for the winner to be announced (I am a seriously slow reader). This year, when the nominees were announced I was actually half way through Lightborn and I’d already read Zoo City. And still, I’ve only just finished The Dervish House, with Monsters of Men and Declare still to read. I haven’t read the earlier Ness novels and I might not bother with Declare, as it’s not my usual taste. So I can’t say for certain if, in my opinion, Beukes’ novel is the best of the nominees. I would say it is the best of the four that I did read. But only just.

Lightborn follows the fortunes of Xavier and Roksana, trapped within a quarantine zone in the city of Los Sombres. Lightborn is also known as shine. It is a mind-altering technology which has changed everything. Imagine brain-training taken to the nth degree. It is a way to educate, improve and also to entertain the user. Information, or distraction, is beamed direct into the users brain. However, as with most technology in science fiction, things have gone wrong. Shine has rendered the adult population in the city useless, and thus it has been sealed off by an over-zealous government. The young are turning to drugs to stave off maturity in an attempt to avoid the shine. Xavier is looking for the drug when he meets Roksana, an adult immune to the shine. What is her secret and how does Xavier’s quest change the world?

What struck me about Lightborn is that although we are dumped straight into Sullivan’s world with little exposition, you immediately feel comfortable in it. The nature of the chaos and even the nature of the shine is carefully revealed throughout the novel. The characters take us with them as they discover what’s really going on in the world around them. As with Sullivan’s previous novels, the characters are very well drawn with realistic motivations. Family is key with Roksana and I felt the relationships were genuine. The near-future is one of those that you can see happening, with just a short nudge in the wrong direction from where we are today.

The Dervish House is a complex tale of several characters who live in the titular abode in near-future Istanbul. A detailed plot synopsis would be as long as the book. It is so rich, detailed and bristling with ideas that at times it might seem to be drowning under its own weight. It’s 2025 and as a heat wave hits, a terror attack also hits. Necdet witnesses the attack but all is not as it seems. An elderly Greek economist befriends a 9-year old boy who is obsessed with his robot toy. Leyla gets a job working for distant relationships developing nanotechnology while Ayse, a gallery owner, accepts a job looking for a Mellified Man, which is a human mummy confection. There are half a dozen more important characters. The characters’ lives inter-weave in the multifaceted narrative while the plot navigates between nanotechnology, future AI based-economics, robotics, political conspiracy, ancient history, religion and mythology.

There is so much to admire about McDonald’s opus. The imagination and research that has gone into the book is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It feels genuinely authentic, as if McDonald has lived there all his life. There are as many ideas as there are words, or so it seems. And I think, being critical, that this is the problem with the book. There are so many plot threads and characters, it is almost exhausting keeping up with them all. I think McDonald could have lost a couple of characters and dropped a few ideas and presented a much more satisfying read. That takes nothing away from the impressive scale, however, and repeated reads may lead to a more enjoyable experience.

Generosity is possibly the start of all post-human tales set way in the future. Teacher Stone has a young Algeria student, Thassa, who has escaped from a terror regime. And yet she is luminescent. She is joy personified. How is it possible? How is she always full of beans and is it becoming infectious? Her disposition is noticed by a geneticist who believes in genomic enhancement – the idea that you can genetically select preferential traits. Thassa is tested by science and the growing media circus, and she starts to doubt herself. Is she about to transform the world? Meanwhile, Stone has to come to terms with who he really is and a new relationship which might just be the one.

Generosity is told mostly from the perspective of the flawed Stone, who is pretty much at a loss to explain what is going on around him. It also has what could be called a meta-fiction concept. Powers talks direct to the reader, explaining how he feels about how he is manipulating the characters. This was a gripping read that dragged me along at speed, while wondering where Powers was taking us. I kept thinking about novels I’d read by the likes of Charles Stross, Hannu Rajaniemi, William Gibson and oddly enough, Tricia Sullivan. This book describes the moments when the futures imagined by these authors began. And I think that is pretty much inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed Generosity and I can’t think of anything negative to say about it. The writing is first class. The characters are multi-dimensional, flawed, emotional and human. The plot roars along and the concepts flawless.

And Zoo City, which sounds like it must be good to be better than Generosity. Beuke’s novel is a highly originally tale of the animalled Zinzi. The animalled are a criminal underclass, a darker version of the demon concept from Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Once you commit a crime, you are magically attached to an animal. Zinzi has a sloth. She also has a talent for finding lost things. Only one rule, however, no people. But of course she has to take a job when a pop star disappears and a dubious record producer makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Set in a twisted version of Johannesburg where magic is commonplace, Zinzi must confront her past in order to come to terms with the present.

Zoo City brims with imagination and wonderfully intriguing characters. I am a huge fan of urban fantasy, and while this was similar to books I’d read recently, I also felt it was new. Fresh. I don’t usually enjoy mysteries or crime, but I was gripped by Zinzi’s plight as she investigated the missing pop star. The descriptions of the seedier side of the city were compelling and really put you in the story. Unlike Pullman’s universe, the animals are not as integral to the personalities of the characters and the plot. Zinzi is anything but sloth-like. Although they have this unspoken association with ‘something bad’, known as the Undertow. Highly originally stuff. As a whole, I thought Generosity was a better read, but Zoo City is something special, when the sum is greater than the parts. It was also interesting to read the story of a black protagonist; very rare in genre fiction.

I don’t always read all the nominees as I’m not going to read books about subjects I’m not interested in, or sub-genres I don’t like. Life’s too short. And some books simply don’t work for me. I read the first four pages of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham in 2009 and absolutely hated it, so put it down. I also didn’t read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Have you seen it? It’s a brick. A huge brick. I don’t have that much time on my hands. Every one of the nominees I have read over the years is clearly science fiction.

However, I question, slightly, that Zoo City is actually science fiction. The main plot driver is a kind of unaccounted for magic. The animalled and Zinzi’s talents are not provided by science. The Undertow is something supernatural. Jo’burg is not really the current incarnation with the city. Is it a science fiction city? It is, however, one of those on-going and unanswerable debates. What is science fiction and what is fantasy? If science fiction is about following laws and rules and examining the impact of innovations in science and technology, Zoo City, in my opinion fails. Johannesburg might be a rational examination of alternative possibilities, but in my mind, the magic-driven plot deposits the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy. So why did Zoo City win a science fiction prize? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe it’s just because it’s a great book.

What really winds me up, however, is the lack of mainstream media coverage. Googling the award shows that most of the UK quality newspapers have an article and some even have a related blog. Most focus on the fact Beukes is a South African. Unusual for SF? Maybe. However, there was no coverage in the popular press. Nothing on the BBC, and yet, according to their own advertising, they are promoting the novel in 2011 – see here.  Shocking. The mainstream media pretty much ignored the year’s biggest genre literary prize. I call on the mainstream media and the BBC in particular to stop being to elitist and remember how loved Doctor Who is, and cover events such as the Clarke Award.