Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

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

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

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

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

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

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

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

Split Shadow by SL Huang

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

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

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

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

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

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

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

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

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

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

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

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

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

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

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

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

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

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

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

Future Noir by Michael Grey

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

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

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

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

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

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

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

 

 

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

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kurt Vonnegut Reader – Vonnegut’s novels ranked and rated

vonnegutWhile Vonnegut’s individual novels are not amongst my absolute favourites, as a writer, he reflects my politics more than any other. I’m not sure why that is. As a collected body of work, I feel it’s pretty much spot on; matching my own world view. Last year, I decided to read all his novels in publication order, so I can see how his style progressed and why his writing resonates so much with me.

Was Vonnegut a cynic? He was cuttingly critical of many aspects of society for sure, and found failings in most aspects of humanity. Wealth, democracy in particular and politics in general, war (of course), art – both writing and painting – and the very nature of existence came under his critical glare. He wouldn’t have been surprised at the events of 2016, but I think he’d have been horrified all the same. So it goes.

Previous to this little adventure, I’d read The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Timequake and his non-fiction book A Man Without a Country (2005).

And so to his novels:

Player Piano (1952)

Player PianoSynopsis: In the near future, all labour is carried out mechanically, so that humans don’t need to work. However, there is conflict between the higher classes who are the designers and engineers and managers, and the lower classes, who no longer have a place in the world. Set after a third world war, Dr. Paul Proteus is a middle manager type who is becoming deluded with his factory and life. Meanwhile, the Shah of Bratpuhr – a kind of future Dalai Llama – is having a tour of America, trying to understand how it works.

Comment: Written not long after WWII, where Vonnegut served, this debut novel has classic SF tropes, while not really written in the style of science fiction of the time. Is a life worth the cost of war? Where’s is humanity’s place in a world of increasing mechanisation? Prescient themes even today. An average man finds himself increasingly at odds with the world he’s forced to live in. Vonnegut is struggling to find himself in post-war America. As I said in my review, “Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia…and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction.”

This is a startlingly brave piece of debut fiction, with wit and bite. It is fairly different in style to much of his later work, interestingly, having an almost traditional prose style, and none of the characters feature in subsequent books. It harks back to the likes of We (1921) and even Brave New World (1932). We now live in the future that Vonnegut feared!

3/14

The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Synopsis: Despite being a fairly short novel, a lot of plot is crammed into The Sirens of Titan. A lucky and rich man – Malachi Constant – is involved with a potential interplanetary war, and travels to Mars, Mercury and Titan. This is the story of his downfall at the hands of Niles Rumfoord. Another wealthy man, and another space explorer, Rumfoord enters a phenomenon called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum: “those places … where all the different kinds of truths fit together.” He exists as a quantum wave and can appear in multiple places in both space and time. When earth crosses his existence, he appears. He also meets a Tralfamadorian on Titan.

Comment: This was my first ever experience of Vonnegut, many years ago. I figured at the time that he was just a SF author. I didn’t really ‘get’ the book as more than just a bonkers space adventure. This time around, I enjoyed it less as a tradition science fiction adventure but a whole lot more as a satire on wealth and power. Of course, it was written during that golden age of SF when not much was known about the planets of the solar system and therefore aliens were often found living on planets such as Mars and Mercury. Most of the characters are pastiches of the rich, but don’t have a free will of their own. They are clearly puppets of Vonnegut’s and perhaps his first dalliance with metafiction, albeit disguised as a traditional SF adventure.

There is so much to admire about Vonnegut’s imagination here, especially his embracing of the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics and his bleak vision of free will. Some might say he is a misanthrope, but what liberty do we really have? I say he’s onto something here. The Sirens of Titan also marks the debut of reoccurring characters and ideas.

4/14

Mother Night (1961)

Mother NIghtSynopsis: Vonnegut finally nails his signature style in this complete turnabout from his previous works. This book is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. and is presented as a fictional memoir, edited by Vonnegut. This literary trick dates back to early gothic novels which were purportedly lost texts found by the author. Campbell is awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, and he is recounting his last days in America after the war, before he came to be arrested.

Comment: What is it about bleak I like so much? Or is it only when utterly black but clever metafiction comes into play that it resonates? Campbell is a terrific character and the classic unreliable narrator. You sympathise but are sceptical. We never really know how truthful his accounts are. After all, he was a propagandist.

Vonnegut is now into the full swing of his re-occurring themes and motifs. He understands both writing as an art, and what it takes to keep the reader interested. He is a student of humanity and that’s why his misanthropy works throughout his oeuvre. “So it goes” makes its first appearance; his famous phrase – a musing on fate. Campbell reappears in Slaughterhouse-Five. War is a major theme, and harks back to Vonnegut’s own service. War is stupid (my naïve opinion). War is horrendously stupid (Vonnegut’s more learned opinion). It is a fake autobiography, as many of his later works will be. Vonnegut isn’t shy about telling the reader that this is metafiction as he deconstructs his characters from his ‘editors’ point of view.

6/14

Cat’s Cradle (1963)

Cat's CradleSynopsis: Author John wants to write a book about what some significant Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. Felix Hoenikker is a fictional Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John contacts Hoenikker’s children to interview for the book. John finds out about something called ice-nine, created by Felix and now secretly in the possession of his children. Ice-nine can turn water into ice on contact. If it ever gets into the planet’s ecosystem, all rivers and oceans will freeze. Meanwhile, John ends up on a fictional island of San Lorenzo, which has a nihilistic faith and a very unusual society.

Comment: Back into a more traditional narrative plot here, Cat’s Cradle still managers to rings all Vonnegut’s literary bells. And boy is it bleak. It is an incredibly complex novel – probably Vonnegut’s most challenging in terms of concepts and plotting despite its short length. Hence why I love it. It pushes all my buttons. A proper narrative, delightfully satirical prose and all of Vonnegut’s themes. I love the idea of the researched book as a plot driver and the characters are all cool. Vonnegut’s confidence in his ability and his handle on his beliefs are fully formed and that’s why this is such a delight. Discussions on free will (the artificial religion that delights in the inevitability of everything) and the nature of humanity’s relationship with science (the development of the apocalyptic Ice-9) make this proper science fiction satire.

While Slaughterhouse Five is a better book, Cat’s Cradle is a more complete work of fiction.

2/14

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

Synopsis: Eliot Rosewater is a millionaire who develops a bit of a conscience. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation “where he attempts to dispense unlimited amounts of love and limited sums of money to anyone who will come to his office.” He is, of course, a veteran of WWII. He basically spends the novel trying to help people while a lawyer tries to prove that Elliot is insane so he can take a cut of the Rosewater fortune by diverting it to a distant relative. Eliot spends a year in a mental institution after having a proper breakdown. He is then visited by his father, the lawyer and Kilgore Trout, his favourite science fiction author.

Comment: And now it’s time for Vonnegut to savage the rich and their class. Or more importantly, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, and the damage wealth can do to both the individual and society. Greed corrupts, obviously.

And welcome to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s fictional alter-ego. And the lawyer visits the Rumfoords in Newport, from Sirens of Titan. However, there’s not much else about this novel that stands out for me. It has all the satirical bite and humour that you’d expect, but the plotting is a little uninteresting and the theme, while important, is as one-dimensional as Vonnegut gets. Not saying it’s bad, but not his best in terms of story and ideas. The characters are interesting enough, with altruistic Elliot being a particular standout across all Vonnegut’s fiction (and indeed features again as we shall see). I suspect Vonnegut sees his as the human ideal; generous, incorruptible and compassionate.

9/14

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse 5Synopsis: The greatest of Vonnegut’s novels. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death to provide the full title is the story of Billy Pilgrim. But it’s really the story of Vonnegut’s experiences during WWII in Dresden. Although Billy might be an unreliable narrator as he also recounts the time he was kidnapped by aliens and held in a zoo with a film actress named Montana Wildhack. He also claims to have travelled in time; or at least experiences flashbacks of his life as a prisoner in the Dresden slaughterhouse. While under psychiatric care he meets the aforementioned Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the novels of Kilgore Trout. It is a this point that Vonnegut introduces the alien Tralfamadorians, who experience all time simultaneously and see death as nothing particularly important.

Comment: So it goes. Mortality, war, free will, metafiction, re-occurring characters (Rosewater, Campbell from Mother Night, a relative of the Rumfoords, Kilgore Trout), humour, death, satire, religion, American life. This is peak Vonnegut. But throwing everything at this story isn’t the dog’s dinner it might have been. Vonnegut skilfully takes the reader on a journey through the horrors of war and been held against one’s will. Having really been beaten in a Dresden slaughterhouse, it is remarkable that he writes this tale with such humour and verve. It must have been painfully difficult to fictionalise the horrors he went through. Yet…Vonnegut’s fatalistic ‘so it goes’ brings both a wry smile and a shiver of bleak inevitability regarding existence – in an entertainingly witty science fiction romp.

1/14

Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Synopsis: Described as the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast”, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday puts Kilgore Trout front and centre for the first time. Not the success he’d hoped to be, Trout is invited to speak at an arts festival where businessman Dwayne Hoover is kingpin of the city. Hoover might be losing his mind but takes an interest in Trout. After reading one of his novels, Hoover believes he is the only person in the universe with free will, thinking the novel to be factual and goes on a rampage! The book has a typically Vonnegutian piece of metafiction as a code, with the narrator bestowing freedom on Trout.

Comment: This is another complexly plotted satire from Vonnegut that dabbles in his many familiar themes. It is a dark as they come, with death and mental health at the forefront, along with of course, the idea that humans are not as free willed as they think. Are we nothing more than biological machines destined for nothing more meaningful than death? Probably. In previous novels, there has been a focus on bigger picture stuff (war, the universe, big business, wealth, etc) while Breakfast of Champions is a more personal story.

As it essentially features a couple of white men, this is as close to Vonnegut’s viewpoint portrayed in characters as you’ll find. Oddly, I found it less engaging than many of his other works because of this. While the themes resonate, and its ace to read a story with Trout as the main character, I was less interested in Hoover and his family than many of Vonnegut’s characters. Trout is an optimistic trier…always writing and always hoping for that great science fiction novel. More re-occurring characters pop up, including Francine Pefko, who was a secretary in Cat’s Cradle.

7/14

Slapstick (1976)

SlapstickSynopsis: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! might be described as science fiction but only in the loosest sense of the term. Set in a near future when New York City is somehow in ruins, this follows Vonnegut’s now traditional style of being a fictional autobiography. This time it is by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain. He lives in the collapsed Empire State Building with his pregnant granddaughter and her partner. Swain is cut off from the rest of society due to his ugliness. He has a twin sister, and they have an unusually creative bond; as if they were two halves of a superior brain. Eventually, Dr. Swain becomes the President, devolving the government as global oil runs out, while the Chinese miniaturise themselves.

Comment: I didn’t really warm to Slapstick and I’m not sure why. I didn’t buy the science fiction elements, especially the Chinese plans, even though I like that Vonnegut depicts society collapsing as oil runs out. I found this one a bit too scattershot, and failed to engage with the characters. Maybe that’s the point, however, as the main themes are loneliness and isolation.

The religious satire elements are fun, however. The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped is a nice creation and allows Vonnegut to explore is fatalistic view of life with no afterlife.

11/14

Jailbird (1979)

Synopsis: Walter F. Starbuck had recently been released from prison after serving time for his “comically” small role in the Watergate Scandal (1972). It follows Vonnegut’s standard fictional autobiography trope. There’s not a whole lot of plot in this one. Starbuck spends the whole novel pontificating on both American history and on how he ended up in prison in the first place, talking about paranoia and politics in the 1950s and 1960s.

Comment: Jailbird was as close as I’ve come to losing patience with Vonnegut. There is almost no story here and I felt little sympathy for the character of Starbuck. Of course, Vonnegut’s ideas and rants and gags still make this a worthwhile read, but I just wish that like his earlier novels, he’d stuck to the idea of exploring them here with a decent narrative and interesting characters. His exploration of big business – exemplified through his fictional corporation, RAMJAC, which owns almost every other business in the book – is as cutting as ever. And there’s not enough bite in the buttocks of the Watergate affair either. It needed more comment and criticism of the whole debacle.

Interesting, a character in prison with Starbuck claims to be Kilgore Trout. But it probably isn’t, just someone claiming to be him. However, many of Vonnegut’s other traits are missing here. There is no science fiction or absurdism. In Vonnegut’s other novels, Trout is a great storyteller with wondrous ideas, but you never get any exerts of his writing – almost the opposite of Vonnegut here. There aren’t any characters of note that can be seen in other works. There’s a lack of black humour in the prose. It is, perhaps, simply not Vonnegut enough.

12/14

Deadeye Dick (1982)

Deadeye DickSynopsis: Poor Rudy Waltz. Having committed accidental manslaughter as a child – he kills a vacuuming, pregnant woman by shooting a shotgun into the air – he lives his whole life feeling guilty and trying to make amends. Perhaps as a result of the guilt, he spends his life sexually neutral. Now, as a middle-aged man, he tells of how his hometown, Midland City, has been destroyed by a neutron bomb.

Comment: At least Vonnegut is back to storytelling and sympathetic characters here. There’s a lot to like about Deadeye Dick but the sympathy you feel for Rudy is perhaps the standout. It’s rare in a Vonnegut novel that the main character is more memorable than Vonnegut’s themes or satire.

Midland City is the place were Trout and Hoover meet in Breakfast of Champions and represents the blankness of middle America. Not a place Vonnegut has a lot of faith in. Or maybe it’s American society as a whole. I suspect you need a relatable character (not that we’re all accidental murders) if your sub-text is that society is so pointless we may as well nuke it. I do think that the plot gets a little meandering in places and loses its way towards the end, but I enjoyed spending time with Rudy as he tries to make up for his mistake.

10/14

Galápagos (1985)

Synopsis:  This is the story of a motley crew of souls collected in Ecuador, about to go on a cruise to the famous islands. The narrator is the million-year-old spirit of Leon Trout, Kilgore’s son. Having died on a ship that is converted into a cruise liner, he has unique viewpoint as a global financial crisis sends everyone into a panic. The mismatched band of travellers eventually end up shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia as a pandemic renders Earth infertile. Their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures.

Comment: An odd one this, and my least favourite, although still with plenty of merit. Most of the novel, in which the characters are introduced and come together before the fated cruise, reads like a farce, or a series of blackly comic misadventures. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, so when various tragedies strike, they have little impact on me as a reader.

Of course, it is the main theme that is the redeemer. Vonnegut’s main issue throughout his career might be called the stupidity of humanity, despite the big brain of the species. Here he addresses it directly. The last remaining humans evolve into swimmers, who have a suitably small brain. Nice. Kilgore Trout makes an appearance again. He tries to get his dead son into the afterlife (he fails, which leads to the narration), an unusual role for the elder Trout. Less is made of his writing career than in his other appearances in Vonnegut’s novels.

There is an interesting literary device which again elevates this book above the ordinary. Vonnegut puts an * before any character’s name if they are about to die. So it goes.

14/14

Bluebeard (1987)

BluebeardSynopsis: Fictional abstract expressionist Rabo Karabekian describes his later years while writing his autobiography, at the insistence of a strange woman who inserts herself into his life some time after his wife dies. Karabekian sees himself as a failed artist, although with great talent, after an incident with some paint that faded to nothing. He describes his apprenticeship as he’s writing his autobiography, while defending his secret project from Circe, his new and annoying house guest.

Comment: Vonnegut versus art. Something a bit different and all the more enjoyable for it. Bluebeard goes all meta on meta. Not only is this a fictional autobiography, but it’s about the writing of a fictional autobiography. What’s not to love? Vonnegut is his usually forthright self, but unusually focused. While he touches on war and death, this is Vonnegut’s change to critique the art of creation; both painting and writing. How important is perspective when judging talent? And what about commercial or other success? The relationships between characters are perhaps Vonnegut’s most inciteful too.

This is also Vonnegut’s statement that it is men who have screwed everything up, and now maybe the women should have a go.

Rabo Karabekian previously featured in both Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, keeping up the traditional through-thread, tying all Vonnegut’s work into a complete piece of fiction.

5/14

Hocus Pocus (1990)

Synopsis: Hocus Pocus, or What’s the Hurry, Son? is the non-linear story of Eugene Debs Hartke who is a Vietnam War veteran. After being recorded being jokily un-American by the daughter of a right-wing commentator, Eugene is sacked from his job as college professor. So he gets a job in a prison. There is a breakout and the inmates take over his former college. The college becomes a new prison, Eugene becomes warden and then an inmate. These events occur mostly because of serendipity, or by hocus pocus.

Comment: The usual themes of Vonnegut’s earlier works all come together in this oddly unengaging non-linear narrative. Through Eugene’s ponderings and wanderings, the Vietnam war, class, prejudice, sexuality, freedom and social exclusion are all covered. This is really Vonnegut speaking in this fictional autobiography (again, Vonnegut is editing the notes and writings from Eugene for this text). Vonnegut tries to make it interesting by using some familiar meta elements, such as talking to the reader, repetition of phrases, and the adding of coughing noises, as Eugene has tuberculosis as he writes. Perhaps Vonnegut was sensing his own mortality.

13/14

Timequake (1997)

timequakeSynopsis: From the outset, it appears that this is the story of a timequake, when the universe decides to have a moment and sends everyone back in time 10 years. Forcing everyone to relive their lives again but having no control over the actions until the moment time catches up with itself in 2001. In reality, it is a thinly veiled autobiographical polemic. There is no plot, other than Vonnegut describing events leading up to, and resulting from, a celebration that features his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout. Apart from that, there’s nothing to describe. He alludes to many of his other novels and the first draft of this book, which appears to have more of a plot.

Comment: While this is as sharp and black as most of Vonnegut’s books, it lacks any coherence. As there’s no true plot, it is much harder to engage with it than any of this previous novels. There is no thread to follow as such, other than Vonnegut’s own life. The fun is to spot the themes and smile knowingly when he mentions is previous works in particular contexts. His playful language and running gags are a joy as ever. In lesser hands, this would have been a terrible book. Obviously, free will is the key theme, as everyone must live 10 years again, and then deal with their actions as the first moment of free will kicks in. People are forced to watch their bad choices again, which is as black as it gets! This is an intriguing idea, but I wish it had been carried though with an actual narrative or characters you’d cared for. I think that this is a lost opportunity for another masterpiece.

8/14

 

Final thoughts

As a body of work, these 14 novels are remarkable in their consistency of thought and voice. The themes of social injustice and the futility of human exist resonate strongly with me, which is an odd dichotomy. Life is pointless, Homo sapiens are stupid (or at least the male half of the species), and we don’t have the free will and liberties that we think we do, but while we’re at it, can we all be nice and fair to each other and stop having wars?

While I love the reoccurring characters, themes, gags and phraseology, I feel that towards the end of his career, the fictional autobiography trope becomes a bit tired. The brilliance of Cat’s Cradle shows that a decent narrative works well for the messages Vonnegut has.

His reputation is deserved, of course, and I shall be returning to most of these books again, later in life. And again.

So it goes.

 

kurt_vonnegut_1972The books in order:

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  2. Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  3. Player Piano (1952)
  4. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  5. Bluebeard (1987)
  6. Mother Night (1961)
  7. Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  8. Timequake (1997)
  9. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
  10. Deadeye Dick (1982)
  11. Slapstick (1976)
  12. Jailbird (1979)
  13. Hocus Pocus (1990)
  14. Galápagos (1985)

Image credit By WNET-TV/ PBS – eBayfrontback, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38530410

The joy of reading strange new worlds.

The intention of fiction is to transport the reader to another world, a one that simply can’t exist in our real lives. Even contemporary or literary fiction exists in a fantastical bubble where lives and events follow narrative plot structures and (usually) the conclusion brings about some form of ending to the story. It is the simple joy of reading these tales that draws readers back to imagined worlds, or persuades them to open a new book in the hope of discovering a strange and new world.

Dragon
Some rights reserved by johanferreira15

Consider genre fiction. There are many familiar worlds and locations to excite the imagination. From Narnia to Middle Earth, Hogwarts to Wonderland, these are familiar places. It is easy to find wonder in these safe and classical fantasy worlds. Strange forests inhabited by giant spiders, uncharted waters with lurking monsters and mystic misty mountains abound. The same is true for science fiction: Ringworld, Iain M Bank’s Culture universe, William Gibson’s cyber-punk future, and Wells’ far future of Morlocks and Eloi are amongst many imaginations worth repeated visitations.

Recently, and perhaps not coincidently, worlds familiar to our own yet unconventionally different from the classics have begun to emerge. These are new places in which to find pleasure, explore and to get lost in. Fresh and intriguing fantasy realms and potential futures. These are books so terrific that they stay with you long after the characters’ stories have concluded. You want the book to end so you can find out what happens but you never want to finish it! You won’t find the traditional tropes of genre fiction here.

Day FourSarah Lotz has created something exciting and innovative in her books The Three and Day Four. This is a universe very much like our own. It is familiar, yet just a degree or two off-centre. Events and people seem to be plausible. We have an evangelical cult and a spooky Japanese forest for example (The Three), and the cruise ship and the beach they find (Day Four) which are unsettling indeed. The fantastical elements don’t contain the ghosts of horror novels but the situations the characters find themselves in send shivers down your spine. There are no space ships but despite Lotz’s universe being just like our own, feels alien. Not in the way a traditional invasion story might feel, but something less tangible. In both novels, it is the pay-off in the endings that make the Lotz world such a fascinating place to visit.

The Golem and the DjinniWe think we know all about Golems and Djinns, but nothing can prepare you for the pure pleasure to be attained in Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Published in 2013 and criminally under-read, it features both a 19th century New York where magic is real and a distinct, evocative Arabian imagination-scape. This isn’t the magic of traditional fantasy. There are no wizards with staffs and long, grey beards or teenagers with wands. This is an ancient magic. Real and steeped in tradition. The reader sees these versions of our world through the lonely eyes of Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the jinni). These are characters of ancient civilisations. Whereas Middle Earth has a written history, The Golem and the Jinni has real mythology. It is hard not to read this in sepia imagination and, perhaps, some inherited understanding. Wecker portrays her world in such a way that despite the loneliness and tragedy, it’s a place you love to visit.

A different kind of Arabian fantasy is portrayed in G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. The fictional Middle-EasternAlif ‘City’ is a gateway, between the world that we think we know and the world of Islamic supernatural creatures and myths. The magic in Wilson’s story is almost that of technology. Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer with primeval spirits and vengeful jinn calling the shots. It is a blending of genres. You don’t readily find science fiction in fantasy novels and you rarely get wondrous mythological creatures in near-future cyberpunk. The journey through the City’s streets and alleys engenders a desire to visit somewhere like Cairo that you can almost taste the desert dust in your throat as you romp through the adventure.

You might say that Wilson’s is a new kind of urban fantasy, whereas Kate Griffin’s is a fresh take The Minority Councilon classic urban fantasy. Her Matthew Swift books (Madness of Angels, etc) are pure magic for anyone who has even lived in a dark and sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s walked home alone at night and heard that indescribably noise from just around the corner. Swift, the Midnight Mayor, uses the magic of the electric blue angels to conjure strange creatures and fight unearthly foes. Some of the expected elements are present and correct. Swift casts spells and recites chants. Monsters come and go. However, these are monsters made of grease and broken machines. These are spells made of the names and history and the very foundations of London. Stephen King’s Dark Tower and JRR Tolkien’s Barad-dûr and Orthanc are replaced with the likes of London’s iconic Centre Point and the Shard. If you are familiar with the reality of living in a dense urban landscape, visiting Griffin’s London is a rare and rewarding treat.

Station Eleven proof.inddA final nod in the direction of science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel is the recent winner of the Arthur C Clarke award for her brilliant Station Eleven. On the face of it, a post-apocalyptic journey with a rag-tag bunch of Shakespearian actors might not seem like a joyful read. While the characters are captivating and are enjoyable company to keep, it is the pre- and post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes that are fresh. You might be familiar with the idea of survivors carving niches for themselves in the remains of dying cities, but maybe not in the remnants of an average no-name airport close to the Great Lakes where a museum of relics crops up. Imagine a fantasy with a travelling troupe of mysterious performers or a magical dust-bowl Carnivàle and transport it to a world where the majority of humanity has died. These scenes are interspersed with (amongst others) live revolving around a theatre in Toronto. The juxtaposition works! While not as bleak as some (The Road for example) Mandel’s worlds have depth and realism not often found in this genre.

Finding yourself in one of these worlds and universes and others just like them, brought into being by such talent and imagination, is a rare gift and should be appreciated for what it is. Our real world can be tough to live in, and these escapes provide the highest of rewards. They educate and inform as well as entertain of course, but their primary purpose is pleasure. These fantasy and science fiction worlds don’t have wizards and aliens, mysterious apocalyptic diseases or quests for the magic MacGuffin, and are all the better for it. Joy is an apparent simple emotion but the enjoyment gained from these books, and others, is not readily quantifiable. It is easy to pick up a book and find yourself lost. And smiling.

Image credit: The Fire Dragon CC BY 2.0 by johanferreira15

Bête By Adam Roberts

BeteThe knowledge and techniques Adam Roberts displays in his 15th novel, Bête, are as admirable as they are varied. At first glance, Bête is straight forward near future science fiction story. Look beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find a darkly comic satire of such wit and charm, and a very British dystopia with the best anti-hero for many a year.

For he is Graham Penhaligon and he is a farmer and he kills a cow. Not so much of a big deal, except Animal Rights activists have developed AI chips to install in animals. The cow pleads for its life but Graham has a farm to run and no sympathy. He believes that it is the chip that is pleading and not the animal. A video of the event is released and Graham becomes infamous. As British society crumbles and the animals begin to take control first of their own lives and destinies, and then tracts of countryside, Graham finds himself increasingly unwanted by society and unloved by his family. Anathema to the animals, he seeks solace in Anne, a guest house owner and fellow loner. She has a loquacious cat who ‘badgers’ Graham into an act against his better nature, in order to save the one thing left in his life that has meaning.

This is no animal farm. Fine, so the animals can talk, and may have sentience, but this is Graham’s story. He is a grumpy old man living on his wits and just wanting to survive in a world he no longer understands or believes in. True, the world has little time for him either, but he is pivotal to humankind and animal kind whether he likes it or not.

Roberts’ satire has more bite (there, I said it) than almost any other satirical science fiction writer currently plying a trade. His observations around the www of world wide web and religion are most amusing.  And he has the ability to play with language in way that brings a smile to the reader and yet isn’t clichéd or predictable. Roberts even finds time to write passages where he openly questions common phrases and clichés. My favourite trope is the way he strings ideas together, just like they do in your own head, exemplified by the reference to Norman Bates in the final third. There’s some proper darkness too, as humanity and animals come to have different kinds of relationships – just ask the dog in Newcastle. Bête reflects significant chunks of British, or maybe even just English, culture too. There are plenty of nods to popular culture familiar to us today. The towns and other locations (boarded up Costa in Wokingham, a militarised dystopian Reading, living rough in woods, a dubious pub clinging on to the past, for example) suggest a particular mind-frame for the reader. This is dirt-under-the-finger-nails science fiction; flabby flesh, greying beards and desperation.

There is very little mention of the world outside England, so we’re not sure about how the spread of the sentient animals is affecting the elsewhere. I don’t think it’s an issue within the narrative because this isn’t a story about that. As the UK economy is in trouble, and money is ‘cents’ on chips, it would follow that Europe at least has problems too.

There are as many light gags as there are dark but Bête is ultimately a clever story of an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. Graham is quite simply an awesome and refreshing creation in a brilliant book. It has some serious things to say about how we treat animals and how we treat ourselves. Of course, it has comment on technology’s role in our future and some inventive religious ridicule. It has some decent things to say about family and relationships too. Bête is as unsettling as all the best science fiction should be. And how many fantastic science fiction novels can get away with that INXS gag? A triumph from a terrific science fiction author at the top of his considerable game.

Originally published on Book Geek: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/06/10/bete-by-adam-roberts/

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.

 

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

In the 1950’s, Hugh Everett III postulated the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, which basically suggests that every possible alternative The Adjacentpast and future are not only possible, but must be real. Christopher Priest’s latest slice of genius, which is a genuine puzzle of a piece of fiction, appears to embrace this branch of science. And while it’s a wonderful example of writing and imagination, it won’t be for everyone. It isn’t an easy book to describe without giving away the plot points which will spoil the reader’s enjoyment and discovery. It isn’t easy to categorise a novel which is set both in the future and the past and another place or planet entirely and features a cameo from HG Wells.

The main plot strand is set in a future where climate change and warfare have ravaged what is now the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Tibor Tarent is a freelance photographer whose wife has recently been killed in Anatolia; the result of a mysterious attack. A similar, but incredibly larger attack has occurred in London too. Hundreds of thousands dead. Tibor is transported to a government facility to be debriefed and meets a mysterious woman en route. Meanwhile, it is the First World War, and a stage illusionist is sent to the front line to try to make aircraft harder to spot to the enemy. He meets the enigmatic Herb, with an equally perplexing mission. Later, in 1943, a Polish pilot who has lost her lover meets a young technician who reminds her of her missing fiancé. And there’s more. Today, or perhaps tomorrow, a physicist stands in his garden and makes some conch shells disappear. We revisit Tibor as his reality becomes increasing confusing and the authorities attempt to work out what is causing these unusual terrorist attacks.

The Adjacent is a potent blend of history and science fiction and speculation, covering many of Priest’s favourite themes: magicians and illusions; playing games with the reader; alternative versions of WWII; identity; coincidence and perhaps is favourite trope, the unreliable narrator. Indeed, a passage on page 97 (hardback) is so blunt that it reads “I mislead and deceive. That’s what I do’. This applies to the author as well as the narrator. So what do you believe is such as novel?

The characters are incredibly interesting and intriguing. Many might be the same person, or least that might be clever misdirection. Names are the same but different… What is particularly clever is that the characters appear to have some higher level of influence on the events around them: the photographer ‘sees’ (much to the chagrin of his wife before she dies); the magician is nothing but an ‘illusion’, maybe; the nurse ‘saves’ more than just the wounded. There is a theory in physics that the act of observation alters the outcome of the thing observed. Of course, to the casual reader, this may seem baffling. However, it is to Priest’s credit that he makes the whole experience of reading The Adjacent a rewarding one, thanks to his imagination, his skilled prose and his believable characters.

There are more answers than questions, but not in an annoying Lost way when it seems that the writers made stuff up as they went along. We never find out the fates of the WWI protagonists. There is no explanation of how the Polish pilot ‘disappears’. Mysteries compound mysteries. Priest appears to have planned everything out meticulously, leaving the reader puzzled but charmed and entertained. You can imagine his notes full of the answers and plot points coming to conclusions. He just didn’t put them in the novel.

The Adjacent is, in my opinion, a story about how people perceive the world around them. Or maybe the author has misdirected me into looking at his right hand, while the left hand produced the real trick. Either way, this novel is a delicious read.

My kinda science fiction…or is it?

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are many styles and types of science fiction out there. While I’m not too interested in specific genre and false boundaries, I was looking over what I’ve read this year and it does appear my tastes have changed within various areas of science fiction. When I was young, I would read Arthur C Clarke and John Wyndham. The latter being one of my all time favourite authors. Something about The Chrysalids in particular really pushed my buttons. When I got a little older, I moved onto William Gibson and Tricia Sullivan, Greg Bear and Philip K Dick. Of course, I read all the classics such as Orwell, Huxley, Shelley and others. This is a list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed (although not all of them are great – I’d only put 5 of this list in a category labelled classic) in the last 18 months or so (not including fantasy, horror, etc):

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  • Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
  • Vurt by Jeff Noon
  • The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • Trust by David Moody
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross

What’s generally missing? Space opera. Space ships, time travel, aliens, other planets, optimism. Only Trust and Dark Eden have traditional science fiction tropes; an alien invasion and living on another planet respectively. Maybe The Dog Stars could be called classic apocalyptic. (And by the way, I have a problem with much so-called post-apocalyptic fiction and movies. Most of them aren’t post- at all, just apocalyptic. The clue is the word post, or ‘after’. The aforementioned The Chrysalids is post, whereas The Day of the Triffids is apocalyptic.) Anyway. Back to the issue at hand. What we have instead is near future, odd science, mystery, dystopian society, drugs, technological singularity and computer games.

Let’s pick 12 of my favourite books from my twenties and early thirties:

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear
  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • Jem by Frederik Pohl
  • Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
  • Timescape by Gregory Benford
  • This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • Someone to Watch Over Me by Tricia Sullivan
  • Kiln People by David Brin
  • The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg

What we have here is aliens, distant planets, spaceships time travel, post-humans and far future.

What I am interested in, when I read science fiction, is what the problems and challenges are in modern society and how humanity might evolve, both physically, emotionally and intellectually. Although after reading Twitter for half an hour, I wonder if it even can evolve. I want to read about characters I can relate to and be interested in. I want to find new ways of telling stories that I’ve not come across before.

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0

It would appear that mind kind of science fiction had shifted from classic to more left-field. From far-future to near-future. From generally more optimistic where space exploration was the hope for humanity to more pessimistic where we’re all going to upload our consciousness into the cloud. Maybe its symptomatic of our times. Maybe in the 1990s there was hope in the future, while there’s not so much these days. Maybe I’m becoming a grumpy old man?

The question is this. Are there stories out there featuring aliens and space ships, time travel and far future that I’m missing? Or is it that my tastes have changed and I don’t find inspiration in this type of science fiction any more. Who is writing Blood Music today? Where is this year’s Alfred Bester or Mary Doria Russell. Ok, I know Greg Bear wrote City at the End of Time which was dreadful and Hull Zero Three which was just dull. I know people like Eric Brown and Paul McAuley are getting good reviews (I started reading The Quiet War but I found it tedious and uninspiring). I’m guessing that someone out there is writing good old-fashioned yet modern and relevant science fiction but I’ve not come across them. People talk about Adam Christopher and Lauren Beukes, Adam Roberts and Madeline Ashby, but they’re the kind of people I’m inclined to read anyway. So, my challenge to myself is to find a few new authors that rekindle the old magic I felt when reading Jem and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and even Neuromancer and Frankenstein.

…I think I’ll add Proxima by Stephen Baxter to my Goodreads ‘to read’ list…

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Meet Trent. He lives in the near future, in Bradford. He likes to remix old films, but in order to do this, he needs to download them. Illegally. Meet Cory. He writes books and although comes from Canada, lives in London. He likes people who remix his books, and lets people do it from his website. Legally. And so the scene is set.

Pirate Cinema is a Young Adult novel by Cory Doctorow. Or more accurately, it is a call-to-arms. It is a manifesto and I imagine Cory hopes every teenager reads it 16089131for its political messages. But what of its story? So Trent’s hobby ends up with his family having their internet connection cut meaning his Dad can’t work, his ill Mum can’t claim her benefits and his younger sister starts suffering at school. He runs away to London where adventure – pirate adventure – awaits. Trent finds himself squatting in an old pub and making remix films under the name Cecil B. DeVil. He meets a girl called 26 and his gang – who includes Chester, Rabid Dog and Jem – is called the Jammie Dodgers. Trent’s mission – and that of the reader – is to learn about copyright law and how the big corporations and the government use it to make the rich richer and put the poor in prison. Trent’s adventures include creating a literal underground cinema, dealing with his runaway sister, being filled a lawsuit and pulling off his greatest stunt while trying to get a law repealed.

There are some nice touches of science fiction that take the plot a little further into the future than just tomorrow, such as hats that zap mosquitoes with mini-lasers (which perform a useful function later in the book). Doctorow has an excellent knack of taking today and extrapolating it forward a few years.

Doctorow’s greatest talent, however, is creating stories about potentially dull politics stuff – internet piracy and copyright law in this case, and making an eminently readable book. Pirate Cinema has loads going on and is the very definition of a page-turner. The characters are all interesting and different and you quickly care for them. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to make technical stuff fun to learn about. He knows how to make his point. Which is one of two issues with this novel that need highlighting.

The first is that this is a polemic. Doctorow is known for his liberal views on internet piracy and copyright. Odds are, if you’ve read his books or his blogs before, you’ll already know his politics and this won’t be anything new or surprising. If you disagree with his point of view (and this reviewer doesn’t), you might find that you quickly tire of being lectured to. There is of course, nothing wrong with a shouty, preachy, science fiction book. Many of the best ones are. But they are also subtle or nuanced. This ain’t. The problem with Pirate Cinema is that everything comes too easy to Trent.

Which is the second issue. Ok, so he’s a genius, but when this story begins he is an underage runaway who arrives in London with no knowledge and no friends. But everything comes easy. Within a short time of arriving in London he finds himself in a gang of equally talented, cool, smart friends. They dine on the best free food and spend all day perfecting coffee. He meets his dream girl and they quickly fall in love. When he needs something, such as a new bit of technology, or a way to avoid being kicked out of the squat, someone turns up at the most opportune moment with his solution. Whenever he screws up, everyone forgives him. At one point, he gets nervous and leaves a meeting just before its raided, so he doesn’t get arrested, but all his friends do. And it’s fine. They all get out of jail quickly and no-one minds he didn’t share their troubles. Whenever you expect 26 to berate him or point out his flaws, she just kisses him. There’s a lot of sexuality in the story and for a young adult book, again, it all comes too easy for Trent. He gets his first kiss with 26 and then they have sex, and soon after he discovers two of his friends are gay and that plot thread ends with everything just fine, and there is no toll. There is no struggle, especially considering most of the characters are homeless and misfits. Drugs are fine. Not having money is fine. Nothing he does ends badly. There is no sense of peril or real difficulty, so you know that in the end, despite all the barriers that Doctorow throws at him, he will succeed.

There is, to be fair, a bit of a downer coda, but even that, you feel, will work out ok in the end.

Despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed Pirate Cinema. It was fun. As I was reading it I knew its flaws and failings and I knew it would end well. I expect a lot of disenfranchised teens will enjoy it too, as well as existing fans of Doctorow. I doubt, however, it will appeal to anyone else. Nothing is genuinely earned by the characters and there is no honest counter-balance to the story.

First posted on Geek Syndicate

Vurt by Jeff Noon

17401136There is something both comforting and unsettling about Jeff Noon’s Vurt. Reading it for the third time was like meeting up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for years and I’d forgotten how much I missed. And then reading it, actually remembering the narrative and the characters; made me uncomfortable at some of the plot points, warm inside like I’d had a glass of my favourite brandy, made me insanely jealous at Noon’s phenomenal talent and imagination and infuriated me that more people had not read this book. Even though it won the Clarke Award back in the day.

So, why was I reading Vurt for the third time? I read it when it was first released in 1993. I was blown away by how original it was at the time and I couldn’t wait for more from Noon. I read it again several years after, just because I’d read Pollen and Nymophomation and Automated Alice and wanted another fix of Noon. And then the Twentieth Anniversary edition comes out with an introduction from Lauren Beukes and so my surprise and delight, 3 new short stories at the end of the novel.

If you’ve read Vurt before then you know what’s coming next. If you haven’t, why not? Ok, so you might want the plot and the background, and just why I’m a fan of something I might describe as unsettling or uncomfortable. We are in a science fiction with fantasy elements, and even a bit of meta-fiction. Or maybe it’s a fantasy with a nod to cyberpunk. It is posthuman fiction or a love story. It is a riff on Alice in Wonderland or a social commentary on life in Manchester in the early 1990s. It is all of these things and more, and it all starts with Scribble and a yellow feather. Vurt is told in first person by Scribble – possibly a narrator of the unreliable kind – who is searching for the rare feather, called Curious Yellow. He travels with his group, the Stash Riders; Mandy, Brid, the Beetle and the Thing. Brid is a shadowgirl. The Thing is Vurt swap, alien-type, well, thing. You see, Scrib is searching for the feather because he thinks he can swap the Thing back for Desdemona, who is his lover and more. Uncomfortably so.

Virtual reality is achieved via feathers. They come in different colours for different styles, such as pink for porno or blue for safe. However, sometimes, things are lost to the Vurt and something else comes back instead. Scribble and his gang are travelling in a series of adventures through the rain of Manchester so he can find his lost love. This world is populated by shadowcops and robodogs and dogpeople. Pure humans are looked down upon. Incest and bestiality are major plot points and an everyday part of the world Noon creates. And yet, you don’t mind. And that is his genius. You don’t object to what would be offensive ideas in the hands of others. And so you miss Des as much as Scribble does and you suffer with Tristan when he cuts the hair of Suze. You want to visit the Slithy Tove because it sounds right and you want Murdoch, the shecop, to fail in her righteous mission.

Noon creates a world like no other. It has been compared with William Gibson’s Neuromancer in terms of ground-breaking, but to me, Noon’s world is quite different. It doesn’t conform. It’s not much of a true science fiction future extrapolated from our society, and yet it speaks of life in Manchester. There is no science (or any explained) behind the vurt feathers, even though their inventor becomes a plot point late in the novel. It references rave and drug culture, crusty sub-culture and anti-authoritarianism. It makes us care about very odd characters with disturbing motivations. It makes us want to be in the world Noon creates. The structure of the book includes descriptions of the world by a sort of reviewer called Game Cat, who becomes a major player in his own right. It’s not perfect, mind, Vurt. Some sections in the middle of the book are a tad laboured, and Brid’s journey leaves you wanting more. The conclusion, however, works so well, that it’s disappointing to find you’re no longer reading the book. In this edition, the bonus shorts are welcome, if not the standard of the novel. Tantalising glimpses into a better place; a sniff from the cork while being denied a drink of the wine. I might read Vurt again, in a few years time, when I’ll be glad to spend more time with Scribble, the Beetle and the gang.

First posted on Geek Syndicate