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

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Favourite re-reads: Listening to Lethe

Lethe Favourite novels can often reflect a particular stage in life. When I first read Lethe (1995) by Tricia Sullivan I was in the process of deliberately hunting out female science fiction authors. I’d recently read and loved Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith and wanted more. I was also a member of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. My time at university had awaked me to some social issues which I was following.

I recently decided to listen to Lethe rather than re-read it. I played the unabridged version narrated – or rather acted – by Imogen Church.

Lethe is set in 2166 after a long period of recuperation for Earth, following the Gene Wars. Human-kind genetically altered viruses and experimented on fellow humans. The result was nuclear war, the decimation of Earth and the creation of new humanoid species. A planet-wide governance by an oligarchy of once-human brains in permanent computer interface allowed so-called “pure” humans to survive in rezzes, protected my mirror-fields. An off-shoot of humans, known as altermoders (who have gills and develop a skin for underwater swimming), can telepathically communicate and network with dolphins. Meanwhile, an astronomical body called Underkohling is found on the outer rim of the solar system which contains gates to other parts of the universe.

Our story features Jenae, an Australian altermoder, who is trying to make sense of the discoveries the dolphins show her, and Daire, who slips through the ‘fourth gate’ while on a mission of exploration, and what he finds on the planet he wakes up on. Jenae learns the truth of what has happened in the past, while experiencing bigotry and grief. She finds out that power corrupts but not everything is black and white when it comes to identity. The planet’s masters are not who they seem. Meanwhile, Daire finds the supposed descendants of the criminals involved with the Gene Wars and learns about love and responsibility. He also discovers what appears to be sentient trees. The leader of the descendants, an impossible girl called Tsering, must come to terms with a terrible fate, brought about by the corporations during the Gene Wars back in Earth’s past. The plot strands come together as Colin – a forth key character and scientist and colleague of Daire – meets Jenae. They escape Earth to find themselves on this new and viable planet.

I remember being really excited to read a story where the heroine not only swam with dolphins, but became like them and could communicate with them. I remember being impressed that science over-comes politics and corporations and has the potential to save humanity. I was also impressed by the small details in the writing. I remember at the time, thinking that a male science fiction writer wouldn’t have mentioned insects so many times. I was probably wrong.

Listening to Lethe was probably a mistake. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the story wasn’t as personal to me as I recalled. I’ve changed a lot. Sullivan’s world is interesting enough and has some nice ideas (how the corporate criminals tried to get away with their crimes, and the bigotry between sub-species for example), but it has dated badly in light of the modern communication age. Computers are clunky and they still use discs to transport information. Her writing is great, however. Her world-building is by discovery for the most part, and not exposition.

The cast of characters is impressive and mostly cliché-free. Jenae and Tsering aren’t the only strong women, but in the end I thought that Lethe should have been more about Jenae. Her story almost fades out as the conclusion arrives and Colin’s character takes over the story. Sullivan presents a scenario which provides Jenae with a potential release to her situation but then fails to explore it.

The details that Sullivan includes in her story are what takes it above a standard SF tale. The mention of the aforementioned insects, the way Jenae’s twin falls for a ‘wrong-un’, the lives of the dolphins, and more aren’t features you’d come across in most genre fiction. Many other passages too. The over-riding theme appears to be that humanity is reliant on nature and not separate from it. Meddle or destroy nature and it will destroy you. The other is identity. Jenae’s twin doesn’t have her altermode ability. The people running the planet are nameless brains. The sentient trees can show you ghosts of your past. What makes you, you? A question all good science fiction should ask. However, I was torn between being interested in the characters, themes and the future Sullivan created and being disappointed by Colin’s growing influence in the story. It was almost as if the author lost faith in her female leads.

Also, I found Church’s narration distracting. The cast of characters from around the world and of different ages meant that Church put on a range of accents and tones. Colin was a pompous Englishman. Janae a headstrong Aussie. There were children and middle-aged Asian men. Not that she couldn’t do accents, but they distracted from what they were saying. I’d have preferred it if all the characters had spoken in Church’s own voice.

I’m more analytically minded now than I was in 1995, despite not long being out of university where I’d completed an MSc. I think that if I’d read (and not listened) to Lethe for the first time today I’d have enjoyed it thoroughly, but it wouldn’t have impacted me personally as much as it did back in the day. There are some cracking science fiction themes here and plenty of interesting characters. Lethe is a great book by a great author, although this audio version is a tad mis-judged.

On reading YA fiction: Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

ShadowboxerTricia Sullivan is best known for her uncompromising visions of the future. She’s tackled far-future genetics, brain implants, AIs, consumerism and designer violence amongst many other tough topics. So it was a raised eyebrow that I picked up her latest, Shadowboxer, which seems at first glance to be set very much in the present, if not maybe tomorrow, and is demonstrably not science fiction. It is also very much of the genre currently labelled as YA (Young Adult).

YA is very topical at the moment. I’ve seen arguments (mostly on Twitter) both for and against adults reading YA books – in other words not the target market. Personally, I’m indifferent about it. I won’t chose what I want to read on whether something is labelled YA or not, or is currently following a trend. I read what I read because of recommendations, previous experience of an author, or if something looks interesting.

I’m a fan of Sullivan, and have read all her books, and so I wanted to read Shadowboxer for that reason alone, although the subject matter rather than the target market was more of a concern. I have no interest in mixed marshal arts. However, I’ve read several books from the point of view of a young woman and enjoyed some. Interestingly, a recent read, Terra by Mitch Benn, is from the POV of a 12-year-old girl, but that wasn’t targeted at the YA market.

However, the few YA books I’ve read in the past have led to a struggle. I haven’t enjoyed them for a number of reasons, although not because I couldn’t relate to the protagonists. SHadowboxer  is an odd beast for me to pick up.

We meet Jade, the first person narrator. We quickly learn that she’s a hot-headed young mixed martial arts fighter. The main personality trait appears to be that of a typical teen – she can’t control her life, despite an assuredness and control when in the ring. She’s confident, no, arrogant, as any young person on top of their game would be (“I’m really fast”) and while Sullivan has an immediate handle on writing her as a teenager, using what feels like the correct language, she doesn’t over-egg it. Jade appears to be fairly normal. Not a cliché. And so thanks to Sullivan’s writing, within a few pages, I’d dismissed my trepidation and soon became engrossed in Jade’s character. She’s very believable. But then, we’re suddenly in a forest with characters called Mya and Mr Richard. What’s going on? There’s still no real hints of anything science fiction or fantasy. Has Sullivan written a contemporary novel? Now, however, it appears that we’re in Thailand and there the clichés appear (Mr Richard especially talks in corny phrases). After a few chapters of What the hell is going on? we’re back with Jade and some exposition. In the first few chapters (up to about the Smart Phone chapter) it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere much. This is just the story of a tough young fighter who must learn a lesson. Nothing particularly exciting. Soon after, however, things start to make sense. Now we have a plot coming together and the two strands of fiction begin to make sense.

So Jade is sent to Thailand to train and as a punishment, but before long she’s back in the US gearing up for the fight of her life. The cat she made friends with in Thailand is with her. A mysterious young journalist, Shea, comes into her life. It seems that her trainer, Mr B, might be into more than just fighting. Food is going missing from her flat. People are after a phone that keeps turning up. Some other people are found dead, apparently mauled by some large animal. And then there’s Mya. The little girl who can disappear into a house plant. This is a thick and complex plot, but it is always engaging, and you constantly want to know what’s happening and who is this and why are they behaving like that.

Sullivan weaves modern culture into the novel, with references to Instagram, Jennifer Lawrence and clothes brands, amongst others. This is a double-edged sword. The story is of the moment and therefore gives it a solid grounding, but will it date? If people read it in 30 years’ time, will they laugh at the tech? Maybe, but then isn’t that always the danger? Sullivan also uses emails sporadically as narrative devices. Not sure they work. There is a lot of ‘of the moment’ bits and pieces – the subtext if you will – in the story, and not just the tech stuff. There is a lot about racial and female inclusion. There’s movie and celebrity culture in general. Family abuse gets a mention. But when intersectionality pops up, I wondered if Sullivan had included a topical issue too many. Not that there’s any reason why these topics shouldn’t be discussed, however, it sometimes reads almost like a checklist of teen issues. Of course, many teens experience many and varied complex issues, so this may be exactly what the YA market wants to read about.

Jade is very much aware of who she is and her personality is the main strength of Shadowboxer. Despite her flaws and failings, she’s very much someone you enjoy getting to know and spending time with. When she loses a fight early on, she takes it in such good grace. I liked the fact that Sullivan didn’t feel the need to describe all of Jade’s training and fights in detail – that would have become boring fast. A book doesn’t need a training montage video. Once the fantasy elements kick in, with Jade in first person and Mya in third, the narrative reminded me of the juxtaposition in Sullivan’s Maul. Which is a good thing. The plot picks up and becomes more interesting. Clues come and go, and not all are as obvious as you might think. Not everyone or everything is who they seem. Once the fantasy elements is established, the story all comes together like a delicious and very satisfying pizza.

There’s a sentence Sullivan writes just before the final scenes which deserves a special mention. I laughed out loud. It mentions a superhero and an animal. Any more would be a spoiler, but when you get to it you’ll know. It just about sums up what this book is about. Enjoyable characters with depth, interesting and unexpected plotting, terrific and knowing writing. This novel features a 17 year old girl as its main protagonist, and the younger Mya as the second lead. Once I was into the story, which I was, it never crossed my mind that I was reading something specifically YA. I was reading a decent story with decent characters. So while it’s as far removed from Sullivan’s past science fiction novels, I didn’t disappoint. I’m clearly not the target audience, and although it’s far from perfect, it is a very enjoyable and original take on modern fantasy.

The original review parts of this post were first post here: http://geeksyndicate.co.uk/reviews/book-review-shadowboxer/ 

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…

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.