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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

82 Weird stories in 93 days

young_daphne_du_maurierSo, in the 93 days since 31 October I’ve managed to read 82 stories from weird fiction compendium The Weird. So odds are that I won’t read the remaining stories in the next 7 days. But hey, I’ll keep ploughing on. There’s actually 110 anyway, so I think they’ll be done by end of February. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest. I thought the process would affect me more. The stories themselves haven’t penetrated me the way I thought they might. Sure, I’ve been inspired and I’ve wrote a short story myself, one that I’d hope would be classified as weird.

I’d kinda hoped that weirdness might infect my dreams and my waking thoughts. I’d wondered if imaginations of ghosts and aliens, strange cities and nightmare futures would creep into the corners of my vision. But nada. Nothing. Not a peep. Not a nightmare. Not a strange dream or an odd occurrence. Damn fiction for promising so much and delivering so little.

I’ve not really ‘discovered’ potential new authors yet. There’ve been a couple who’ve piqued my interest enough to investigate further. Elizabeth Hand and Kathe Koja among them. I enjoyed the imagination and description of Hand’s story, and her prose style generally and the passion and oddness of Koja’s. I’d already planned to read some more Robert Aickman.

But still, as a collection of short stories, there’s been plenty to enjoy. So with 28 stories remaining, here are some of my favourites thus far:

Algernon Blackwood, The Willows, 1907

Daphne Du Maurier, Don’t Look Now, 1971

Donald Wollheim, Mimic, 1942

Elizabeth Hand, The Boy in the Tree, 1989

Paul Wilson, Soft, 1984

Garry Kilworth, Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands, 1987

George R.R. Martin, Sandkings, 1979

Karen Joy Fowler, The Dark, 1991

Kathe Koja, Angels in Love, 1991

M.R. James, Casting the Runes, 1911

Ryunosuke Akutagawa, The Hell Screen, 1917

 

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Daphne_du_Maurier.jpg

Winter of (not so) Weird – Initial impressions

I don’t know if my expectations are skewed or my definition of weird is different to most, but 6 stories in (in 10 days, I know, I’m already slacking) and I’m barely getting the weird. Only Lord Dunsany’s very short story comes close to what I think is weird.

So, what do we have so far?

Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side is the utterly forgettable opener. In fact, without looking back at it I can barely remember what it was about. Some kind of sleeping sickness and maybe a plague. Or is it a dream? A bit Lovecraftian I suppose, but not at all what I would have hoped for to get my winter of weird under way.

Algernon Blackwood.jpgThe Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford is a much better and more memorable tale of a revenge from beyond the grave with a suitably grizzly conclusion. And this followed by Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows is a terrific one two. The latter is a genuinely creepy tale of two men lost in a flooded river surrounded by who knows what. Some great supernatural set-pieces and characterisation of terror. However, they are both – in my eyes – just great ghost stories. The mysterious creatures in The Willows might well be unknown inter-dimensional beasts, but ghosts would equally fill the role.

However, Saki’s Sredni Vashtar is a nicely odd little tale of a personal god, and revenge. Which I liked a lot, especially the idea that a deity would understand a vague prayer. Both this, and Lord Dunsany’s How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art are the shorter stories and all the weirder for it. In fact, having on read the later yesterday, I’m still not sure what it was about. Suitably odd and although I preferred Saki’s, this was the kind of thing I expected.

Sandwiched in between these oddities is the brilliantly classic Casting the runes by M.R. James. However, it is just a devilish tale, nothing too weird or different. Just a delicious read.

I’d heard of all the above authors except Saki, and had some expectations. The next batch from 1912 up to Kafka’s 1919 In the Penal Colony are all completely new names to be. Bring on the weirdness.

Image credit: Algernon Henry Blackwood By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31294059

On reading short story collections: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

Three Minutes of an ExplosionShort fiction is a very particular art which can stand or fall by its presentation – within either the collection or the standalone. Great collections, where every story hits the mark are rare, and rarer still from a single author. Three Moments of an Explosion is the latest collection by literary master of the imagination China Miéville. Best known for his complex science fiction, this body of work might be seen to be exploring a different side of his mindscape.

Presented here are 28 short stories of varying length, style and quality, from what amount to narrative poems stretching for just over a page, to transcripts of trailers for (yet to be made?) films (on 3 occasions) up to much longer explorations of the human condition and the world around us.

Very few of these stories could be called science fiction. What you have, in the majority, is a version of us, and our planet and our existence, but just off kilter; slightly or sometimes totally outré. There is fantasy and horror, surrealism and just plain weird. Which I love. There are some classically styled stories and others that can be only be described as experimentation in language and understanding. Which is, to this reviewer, a slight problem. Some of the stories, most notably The Dusty Hat, are almost beyond comprehension. Sure you follow the plot but some of the sentences are filled with either gibberish or words of such obscurities than renders them almost pointless. Descriptions are beyond the ken of most. I imagine, however, most critics who would fawn over Miéville would not admit their own ignorance with this admission. It’s a shame, because the majority of the stories are excellent: thought-provoking, highly imaginative, almost like nothing you’ve ever read before. Miéville either sees things we don’t see, or describes those things we do from a completely new perspective. Witness:

The opening eponymous description is 2 pages of, well, I’m not so sure. While The Condition of New Death is almost reportage of horror which is beyond description. In the Slopes is a glorious take on the rivalries of scientists which focuses on bizarre techniques and unexpected outcomes. Interestingly, many of Miéville’s stories don’t end in the expected way. There is often no clever twist or neatly wrapped up conclusion. Repeatedly, they are almost introductions to a wider story and he lets our own imaginations ponder on what might happen next. Säcken being the perfect example, when the disappearance towards the conclusion is only the beginning of the genuinely creepy and disquieting story. The animal horror of the twisted future in After the festival and the creative brilliance of The Bastard Prompt are my favourites in the collection, showing Miéville off at his peak. These tales show thoughts and constructs almost beyond comprehension, but based in a relatable and readable narrative. Well written characters allow the reader in to the bizarre musings; while the oddities of the zombie animals and medical training practices become clear. A final nod to the genius of A Second Slice Manifesto – literally looking at art from a new perspective – and Covehithe, which perfectly taps into a child’s darkest imaginations and draws it to a spectacular conclusion, as inanimate objects become animalistic, returning to draw from the earth what we taught them.

Not all these stories are brand new, but the important thing is that they work well as a collection. This is partially because of the commonality of Miéville’s descriptive style and ideas (even the complex stories with seemingly made-up words and nonsense sentences) – floating icebergs above cities, burning stags, feral humans wearing a pigs head and one of the few genuine pieces of science fiction which features decaying space-elevators. As noted, there are a variety of styles of prose – some more successful than others. It feels more natural when he is telling stories rather than playing with language. Although the writing is generally terrific; featuring wit, social concerns, intelligence, beauty and flair. But strip away these facts and concerns and Three Moments of an Explosion represents what all good fantasy and horror does: what is that shape in the dark corner; what lies just beneath those waves; where did that disease come from and what was that, just over there, beyond our understanding? The horror works, the fantasy works, the collection of short stories works.

This is a collection I would like to come back to in the not too distant future. Like that difficult second album from a favourite band, it is a collection of stories that at first read (listen) makes you nod in appreciation most of the time, but frown on occasion (does this really work, is this a story(song) experiment too far?). However, sometimes a little effort is required and I expect a re-read of Three Moments of an Explosion will bring ever greater rewards. But I’m still not bringing a dictionary!

Original review version: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/08/12/three-moments-explosion-china-mieville/ 

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.