Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of The Race by Nina Allan

Nina Allan has, for the past dozen years, quietly but steadily put together a worthwhile number of short stories residing in the wonderfully fuzzy area between genre and literary fiction.  With the recent success of her elegantly futuristic myth “Spin” in 2013, it seemed only natural that a novel would be forthcoming, and in 2014 the promise manifested itself in The Race (NewCon Press).  Her roots of short fiction not far behind, the novel is four pieces of tangential fiction linked obtusely.  Fractured narrative only begins to describe it; one must also add dimension.  Moving between the realms of fiction, veiled autobiography, and embedded fiction, the reader knows with certainty where they stand, but only in the story at hand.  Familiar objects and ideas appear and reappear throughout the novel, but the light shining on them is always different.  But for as elusive as the novel sometimes may be, when the fa├žade washes away, what remains possesses the breath of existence of any person riding the changing currents of life and memory. 

Hovering somewhere near the figurative center of The Race is a teenager named Christy.  Her mother one day walking out the door and literally never looking back, she is left with a hard working but emotionally distant father and an older brother whose virulent personality is bearable on a day to day basis but can give way to acts of extreme violence if provoked.  Having a gift with words, she gets a few stories published, but the weight of her family life and uncertainty regarding friendship and partners prevent any major breakout or desire.  Losing her virginity, the transition to university life, relationships with her brother’s girlfriends—Christy moves through the normal events of life with the requisite drama of becoming an adult.  Trying to make sense of it all, it’s the people around her and the stories she writes—stories of troubled families, smartdog racing, and a land damaged by poor environmental practice—that layer the proceedings, giving them the full complexity of reality.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review of Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest

The 60s and 70s were an interesting time—not only for genre, but mainly for the social environment in which science fiction was produced.  The New Wave would not have existed without the social revolutions and counter-culture movement happening at the time.  But there remained, of course, conservatives, and from a genre point of view, traditionalists.  Rather than veering off into atypical story premises and experimental prose styles, they clung to the roots of science fiction telling their tales.  Possessing a desire to incorporate both prior and currents aspects into his fiction, Christopher Priest’s first novel Indoctrinaire appeared on the scene in 1971.   A fence rider, the novel is as much H.G. Wells as Philip K. Dick in its dealing with the major political issue of the time (the Cold War).  History has not shown it to be an important novel, yet it remains worth reading.

Indoctrinaire is the story of Elias Wentik.  Living and working in an underground laboratory in Antarctica, his research into pharmaceuticals is put on hold when military men appear one day and request he accompany them for a project of more importance in Brazil.  Landing in the jungle yet having to hike in to the facility, things look a bit strange when one of the military men has a moment of insanity.  Regaining composure and continuing to lead the way, they arrive at an abandoned jail in a perfectly circular plain in the middle of the Amazon jungle, ready to start the research.  But things quickly accelerate to the bizarre.  Wentik is kept to a room where a roving light follows his eyes; he is interrogated by a man whose table possesses a large, lifelike hand that points its finger at the comments he makes, and the underground labyrinth he is shoved into one day only confuses rather than helps him understand his surrounds.  The final straw being told he is 200 years in the future, Wentik’s goal becomes escape from the circular plain.  But where to?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review of Great Science Fiction Adventures ed. by Larry T. Shaw

Spotting Larry T. Shaw’s Great Science Fiction Adventures (1963) in a local used book shop for literally pennies, I couldn’t say no.  The anthology contains four stories of novella and novelette length from some of science fiction’s most well known writers: The Starcombers by Edmond Hamilton (1956), Hunt the Space-Witch! by Robert Silverberg (1958), The Man from the Big Dark by John Brunner (1958), and “The World Otalmi Made” by Harry Harrison (1958).  Precisely as the title, cover art, and blurb indicate, it is indeed a space adventure romp of yesteryear to escape into.

The anthology opens with Hamilton’s The Starcombers.  The story of a group of scavenger ships, led by the slothful Harry Axe and his shrew of a wife, it opens with their exploration of the third and final planet of a system.  Looking for valuable metals and materials left behind by previous civilizations and alien races, things take a turn for the interesting when they discover a deep cleft in the planet and a lone alien.  Taken on a commercial venture into the cleft with the promise of goods from the little man (not green), in the volcanic depths the group get far more than valuables in exchange.  The Starcombers is classic space opera, but due to Hamilton’s competency as a stylist, and that he is able to develop the story in unpredictable fashion, remains at least readable.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review of Pavane by Keith Roberts

The stately ebb and flow of human (r)evolution is movement many individuals are aware of but for lack of meta-control are unable to absolve humanity from.  The rise and fall of civilizations a picture painted in a wide variety of arts and philosophies, history is the canvas upon which most are situated.  This leaves the remainder—the future, alternate histories, and alternate worlds—to science fiction and fantasy.  A wondrously conceived and presented alternate history, Keith Robert’s 1968 Pavane is as quietly monumental as it has been influential, and captures the cycle perfectly.  Rich, realistic characters, textured, substantive exposition, and a theme that permeates and transcends the text, the novel will remain relevant as long as humanity is participating in this cycle we call life.

Alternate history (and steampunk before the term existed), the prologue of Pavane lays out a scenario wherein the Catholic church is able to maintain supremacy beyond the 16th century and into the 20th.  Strictly limiting the growth of technology, steam is the main source of motorized power, and communication towers, with flags and semaphores, flash messages across Europe, from Britain to the Vatican.  Church officials the mightiest of the mighty, the Church Militant maintains its authority amongst the common folk, with the slightest word against the church cause for heresy.  Feudalism still in place, quotidian life is as harsh as can be for those without blue blood or a place in the church.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of Upgraded ed. by Neil Clarke

I normally do not open a review with a quote, but in the case of Neil Clarke’s 2014 science fiction anthology Upgraded (Wyrm Publishing) the editor’s introduction is too endearing not to pass up:

“Last July, I suffered a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack that nearly killed me. The damage to my heart was very significant and that led to my doctors installing a defibrillator in my chest. That day, I became a cyborg.”

Inspired to say the least, Clarke decided to edit an anthology about cyborgs.  Upgraded the result, it is a selection of stories which, in some fashion, deal with the intersection of machine and body.  Featuring twenty-six in all, some of the biggest names writing short science fiction today are featured (see bottom of review for table of contents). Twenty-six a large number for such a narrowly themed anthology, there are likewise lesser known names.  But quality is not always an analog to popularity, thankfully, rendering the impact of the anthology limited by quantity, only.

Knowing the theme is cyborgs/androids/augments/cybernetic humans, it’s easy to start forming expectations about Upgraded.  And very few are not met. “Come from Away” by Madeline Ashby is a classic story about an augmented bodyguard contracted to protect the son of a rich CEO.  Death threats sent in emails, the boy is attacked one day at school, leading to some revealing moments in the two’s relationship. “God Decay” by Rich Larson is the requisite upgraded athlete story.  Highly pre-dic-ta-ble, it tells of a super-athlete whose modifications, unsurprisingly, begin deteriorating.  “Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine is the story of a girl whose grandmother dies and is replaced with a robot possessing her grandma’s memories.  “Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman is yet another classic story of a woman with a digital implant who gets hacked and must find a way out.  Likewise obligatory, “Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness is a story about a man whose girlfriend is a cyborg and explores the disconnection inherent to a human-machine partnership in perfunctory fashion.  From the ills of biomodification, we arrive at its glory in Greg Mellor’s “Fusion”.  The story of post-apocalyptic, augmented transcendence, it puts a rainbow spin on the wonders of being upgraded.  Though featuring nice atmosphere, I can’t help wondering if the horse was designed for the cart given the ending...  “Taking the Ghost” by A.C. Wise is about an injured young war veteran who runs into an older man amidst the debris of battle, and together they scrounge, looking for a replacement arm. Nice atmosphere and well-paced, Wise’s story is one of the better in the anthology for as apparent as it is.  A wonderfully unveiled story, “Married” by Helena Bell is about a wife whose husband has recently undergone treatment that slowly converts his body into a cyborg’s.  Elegantly prosaic, it lightly yet effectively questions the underlying humanity of augmented humans in a manner some of the other stories in the anthology attempt but are not as successful. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review of On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Ahh, pirates! From Robert Louis Stevenson’s superb Treasure Island to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the thieving rogues capture the heart of everyone wanting freedom and life on the high seas with wine, treasure, and adventure.  Recent genre forays faring better and worse (Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom, better; Scott Lynch’s Red Seas under Red Skies, worse), a little gem written in the 80s has gone overlooked and is deserving of resurrection—voodoo style—for anyone interested in eye patches and Jolly Rogers: Tim Power’s 1987 On Stranger Tides.  Falling in the middle quality wise, the novel remains an imaginative romp through pirate land.

On Stranger Tides opens with John Chandagnac as passenger aboard the Vociferous Charmichael in Caribbean waters on its way to Kingston, Jamaica.  Looking forward to reclaiming an inheritance from a sleazy uncle who cheated John’s father years ago, his dreams of vengeance, as well as conversations with the lovely Beth Hurwood onboard ship, are interrupted by a pirate attack.  The little brigand sloop amazingly able to overtake the much bigger and better armed Charmichael, John is taken captive by the buccaneer Philip Davies and given a choice: join or die.  Taking the obvious path, John is soon learning the ways of pirating and helping to trim the Charmichael down to racing speed so that Davies can rendezvous with the notorious Blackbeard.  Blackbeard’s purpose for the meeting, however, remains shrouded in ghosts and magic, leaving John in a fight for his life—and soul—on the seas and in the jungles of the Caribbean when they do meet.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review of "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson

Architects and engineers, with their geometry and aesthetics, physics and mathematics, would seem the natural stuff of science fiction.  (And indeed, someone like Kim Stanley Robinson has capitalized fully.)  It’s thus a more difficult trick to insert one into a fantasy story.  Upping the ante further, Kij Johnson added romance to the mix and penned her elegant 2011 novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist is the story of Kit Meinem, an engineer sent by the Empire to take control of a bridge project already begun between the towns of Nearside and Farside.  The bridge to span a quarter-mile gulf of what the locals call mist, it takes some time for him to get a ride across the temperamental mist from the ferry-women Rasali to takeover the project, the conditions needing to be just right to attempt the dangerous crossing.  Competent only beginning to describe Kit, his eventual arrival on the far shore sees him deftly handling the takeover and management of the teams working on the foundations, suspension materials, and towers.  The bridge a major new facet to life in Nearside and Farside, it’s the people, as they live with the dangerous mist and the just as dangerous construction of the bridge, that Kit must handle, however. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review of Marcher By Chris Beckett

In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim.  A later release Dark Eden (2012) meeting a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), he then decided to do something I assume many authors these days think of doing but almost none actually do: thoroughly revise a novel and re-release it.  Tackling Marcher from the opening line, Beckett added, subtracted, and modified the entire text.  Using the five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished the novel in 2014 (NewCon Press) under the same name.  With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages (isfdb) and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more subtracting than anything.  Paring the story down to the minimum needed to really drive the book, Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen.

Social work is perhaps the blip furthest from the center of the science fiction radar, but in Marcher Beckett pulls it into the spotlight.  Told from a handful of perspectives, the novel represents all sides of the field, from client to case worker, government official to social outlier.  Because of this, there are moments the novel feels like the fix-up it is.  But given the social themes, it’s easy to argue focusing on certin viewpoints at certain times is natural, even perhaps necessary, for a novel of such import.  The setting near-future England, a couple of simple but effective concepts foreground Beckett’s target social issues.  In keeping with real-world trends, social deviants are isolated and placed in living communities (ironically) called Social Inclusion Zones.  The Zones gated, only the well-behaved are allowed to enter and exit, the remainder kept living apart from ‘normal’ society.  Further complicating Zone life are strange little things called seeds, or slips.  A few minutes after ingestion, the glowing blue balls shift a person into a parallel world—similar to ours, but different in the details—never to return save by chance and more seeds.  Shifters arriving and leaving unexpectedly, this trans-spatial immigration/emigration adds a degree of ambiguity the world could do without when considering shifters can suddenly appear, commit a crime, and shift to a parallel world without local authorities having any hope of knowing which world they shifted to, or apprehending them. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review of Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo

Those familiar with the work of Max Ernst are aware of the dark images of the surreal which haunt his art.  (If not, see here, here, and here for a quick idea.)  Much more than meets the eye lurks in the depths of the images.  Fleeting glimpses of abstract humanity, time, and existence seem captured by the troubled dreamlike yet eerily relatable images.  Originally published as part of a package that included a hardcover novel, jigsaw puzzle, poster, and post card, Paul Di Filippo’s Cosmocopia is a work of speculative fiction that captures precisely the same response via the surreal.  Re-released by Open Road Media in 2014 as a text-only ebook, those who missed out on the package at least have a chance to discover the bizarrely engaging, fully imaginative Weird  story that binds Di Filippo and Ernst’s minds and ideas together. 

Cosmocopia is the story of Frank Lazorg.  An aging pulp cover artist who was once the darling of the genre crowd, he looks to recover from a recent stroke.  Though his virility has taken a hit, more frustrating his muse is lost—an homage to Courbet’s The Origins of the World” (warning: nsfw) sitting half-finished on an easel.  But thoughts of despair are interrupted one day when a package arrives from an old friend.  Containing a brick of red beetle dust, Lazorg begins ingesting a pinch or two every day.  His energy and creative juices slowly returning, alongwith come strange hallucinations—his dreams filled with creative images.  But nothing motivates Lazorg like learning his once favorite model Velina Malaspina is now working for his main rival, and in a fit of emotion after meeting her one day, finds the energy to complete his masterpiece.  The thing is, it’s not on canvas, rather something more 3D.  And into a rabbit hole he falls…

Monday, September 1, 2014

Review of The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Having abandoned the space opera scene with his previous novel The Execution Channel, Ken Macleod looked to head deeper into the near-future with his next offering.  The aftershocks of 9-11 still resounding in 2008, The Night Sessions approaches religious fundamentalism from a decidedly unique approach: a setting wherein religion simply isn’t acknowledged by government, and by default, citizenry.  The story’s payout playing things safe thematically, Macleod nevertheless delivers a well-paced mystery with loads of technical, science fiction intrigue.

Starting with the World Trade towers attack and escalating into a conflict that peaks at nuclear war in the Middle East but doesn’t come to an end until the Coalition forces are driven from the arena due to lack of money and soldiers, The Night Sessions is set in a weary UK that has seen religion legally marginalized as a result of its failures in the Middle East.  The official government stance ‘non-cognizance’, most people have a sour taste for religion in their mouths from the fallout of the Oil/Faith Wars, and do not practice.  But not everyone, however, as at the start of the novel Detective Investigator Adam Ferguson and his partner, the tripod-robot Skulk, are called to the scene of what appears to have been the mail-bombing of a Catholic priest.  The investigation which results taking the pair from dirty alleys to major corporations, underground to above-ground churches, and from the comfort of the police briefing room to the dangers of the real world, the implications of the priest’s death spread from Edinburgh all the way around the globe in a story of extreme belief only science fiction can tell.