Exile by Betsy Dornbusch (Night Shade Books, 2013) is the first in what has been billed as The Seven Eyes series but, with the publisher disappearing into a black hole, it’s not at all certain whether you will be able to acquire this book or whether a new publisher will release any more in the series. Although, truth be told, I’m massively indifferent as to whether any more work is published by this author which prompts me to one of my minor musings. Have you noticed how the noble bagel has been taken from its iconic role of bread, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and applied to the equally pleasing game of tennis. But the meaning has been turned pejorative to signal an unequal contest in which the winner of the set triumphed 6-0. Ah, such are the vagaries of language. . . but this should also indicate a deeper truth.
Not everyone is a top class performer and, when players come together for a game, superior skills almost always dictate the winner. The same is true in almost every human activity. Some people are better than others and we should not be ashamed to admit it. So let’s assume we can rank everyone from top class, through second, third, and so on down to total failure. If in international terms, I’m ranked as third class, I take that as an honour. When you look at the world’s total population, the idea there are only several million people better than me is high praise. All of which brings me to the immediate book for review. In international terms, this is an indifferent fifth-class sword and sorcery fantasy. Put in more precise terms, the writing is, at best, stodgy and the plot is hopelessly contrived and formulaic. That said, I’ve read an uncountable number of novels that are worse or, indeed, failed to finish novels that were total failures. So, in real terms, this is not quite as bad as it could have been.
So what’s it about? Well, there’s this cousin from the wrong side of the bed to the King of Monoea. He’s framed for the murder of his wife and, as the title suggests, exiled to Akrasia. So here comes a guy with superior skills as a bowman, having been a leader of men in the King’s Black Guard. He’s dumped in this foreign land in a miserable physical condition, having not exactly been given VIP treatment on the voyage to strand him. From this moment on, he’s on an inexorable rise to the top of the heap. Every time he has a chance to do the right thing, he does it. If he needs rescuing, this is carried by some conveniently-to-hand people. Whereas my own life experience has been one of slippery slopes tending in a downward direction, this Draken can’t help but end up beside Queen Elena. Naturally he fights against the disloyalty to the memory of his wife but this is the kind of woman no hero in a novel like this can resist.
What makes all this faintly risible is the way in which problems are solved. So, for example, he’s pretty useless with a sword and this is a sword and sorcery book, so he meets a magician who can bond him with the soul of a great swordsman. This gives him a guide to local conditions, great fighting skills, and someone to talk with whenever the conversation around him peters out. And, guess what, the sword he has turns out to have magic powers. That’s a useful plus. So the author presents us with a hero who, metaphorically speaking, can walk on water as we watch his miraculous progress round this island of exile until he works out who’s trying to depose the Queen and why. Then there’s some fighting and the Kingdom is saved.
Next book please.
Sorry that’s ambiguous. I’m not interested in reading the next book in this series. I’m hoping the next book in the pile to be read is better. Exile by Betsy Dornbusch is not recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the simple days of my youth, there were an alarming number of fantasy stories in which the hero is suddenly made aware he or she has magical powers. This was wish fulfillment overcompensation just after the war. There we were, walking around towns and cities with major bomb damage, wondering when life would get back to normal and speculating on how much easier it would be if we were all endowed with superpowers to clear the sites, dig new foundations and get everything ready for the rebuilding. It offered hope for the future when we could read about people who could not only rebuild, but use their powers to ensure we never had to go through another war. In these stories, we were there, looking over their shoulders as they experienced shock and surprise at the discovery they could do super stuff. These “ordinary” men and women had been living routine lives in whatever settings the authors picked. Suddenly they are pitched into situations in which their very survival depends on them mastering these new skills and besting those who have spent decades (or in some cases centuries) practising and refining their powers. And all this before eating breakfast and learning the magic spell, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side”. The most annoying feature of this approach is the assumption some people are so inherently superior to others, they could always prevail because they are “good”. It’s a kind of übermenschlich approach to the traditional battle between good and evil. In this binary world, there’s a superhuman lurking in everyone, just waiting for the chance to leap into action when the chips are down and the barbarians are at the gates.
And talking of chips, here’s Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers (Night Shade Books, 2013) an urban fantasy novel built around a poker game. I confess to being a reasonably good bridge player but poker leaves me cold. This judgement has nothing to do with the merits of the game. The blend of straight probability calculation and psychology is intriguing and, when played at a high level, it can be interesting to watch. But with only one or two exceptions like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), the idea of making poker a central plot element has not attracted me. So, from the outset, this book is facing an uphill struggle. Now add in the human who turns out to have superpowers trope and you see why this book is never going to get anywhere in my estimation. So how does all this work?
Well, within ten seconds of our hero stopping to help an injured “man”, he’s attacked by feral fairies who try to rip out his eyes. Now you’ll understand this is not an everyday occurrence as you walk down a busy city street. Usually, the only thing assaulting your senses are the garden gnomes and their faux clay smiles. But the old “man” touches him and, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side” this awaken superpowers. In an instant, he’s able to throw up a force field. Moments later, he’s sending out his Ka (as in Gifford Hillary by Dennis Wheatley). In this form, he’s able to fetch his car, i.e. even when on the astral plane, he can manifest in the physical world to drive a car — neat trick, huh? And all this without any practice and within minutes of understanding the world of the supernatural and magic are real. This guy is a real operator in every sense of the word. As we go on, we meet the other players in the poker game. It’s the usual Friday night crowd in the backroom at the pub: the Mummy, a vampish female, a mechanical man calling himself Gimble of the Seven Soft Rebukes, a Queen Bee, and a demonlike figure called Wotan.
The other feature I found distinctly wearing on the nerves was the general lack of seriousness. This is not to say the book is a barrel of laughs. Perish the thought that any work in the urban fantasy subgenre should be a comedy. But there’s a lightness in the tone that militates against there being any sense of menace or threat to our “hero”. This does not deny that two of the dream sequences have potential in the horror zone, but you just know our hero is never seriously at risk and is always going to emerge stronger and more experienced from whatever the latest challenge is. The race at the end is overblown and the final nail in the coffin. Overall, I regret to say I found Blind God’s Bluff tiresome and, even more disconcertingly, when I finally arrived at the end, I discovered that it’s left open to become a series. If that’s the case, I will definitely not be reading it. This does indicate an acknowledgement that Richard Lee Byers is a competent author who has a good command of the craft of writing. It’s just that he’s allowed himself to be diverted from the need to write something genuinely scary by his obvious love for poker and his desire to construct an urban fantasy suitable for teens and young women to read. Definitely not recommended for anyone who likes red meat.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As is sometimes the way with these reviews, I’m going to begin with a small autobiographical note to explain why I have never consumed anything hallucinogenic. Being born into the world before antibiotics were generally available to the public, I contrived to catch several diseases which produced very high temperatures. Having experienced hallucinations the “natural” way, I’ve never felt the need to induce one by taking anything pharmacological. This is not to say I’m prejudiced against people who disable their senses by chemical means. Whether advertently or inadvertently, people are free to do what they like to their own bodies and minds. But I’ve no sympathy for such people if they injure themselves or others while voluntarily under the influence.
Having got that off my chest, I come to Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell (Night Shade Books, 2013). It reminds me of books like Ritual by David Pinner and The Magus by John Fowles where our “hero” goes to a village or an island and finds his worldview shaken by what he finds. In this case, our hero is Henry Cadmus who returns to Catalina in search of his mother. As a young boy, Henry spent some time on the island but was the proverbial square peg, never seeming to find any degree of acceptance from anyone else on the island, and being relentlessly bullied, particularly by the girls at the school. Those of you who enjoy classical mythology allusions will notice that the original Cadmus was sent off on one of these hopeless quests by his father. Zeus had run off with his sister Europa and he was supposed to persuade the ruler of Olympus to return her. When that proved a little too challenging for a mere mortal, he founded Thebes and became mildly famous. In other words, the original Cadmus was a wanderer who eventually made a home for himself and settled down.
To explain my reaction to this book, I need to offer a definition of “horror” as applied to books and films. No matter what the content, the author’s intention is to induce a fairly specific emotional response. This can range from fear through to disgust. As cultures change and supposedly become more sophisticated, the concept of horror also changes because the innocent reactions of a young society no longer occur in world-weary societies who have seen it all before. This is not to say we cannot find ghosts stories scary and must always have some gore-splattered maniac hacking off limbs or inducing others to hack off their own limbs. This is not a race to ever more extreme descriptive content. But writers need to reflect the contemporary psychology and cultural expectations of their readers when deciding what constitutes horror content.
In many ways, this is a classic horror novel. Structurally, the first part is a twin narrative showing the arrival of our hero, his wife and young child on the island, and recalling the events of his childhood. As is always the case, the childhood sequence plays the unreliable narrator game. By definition, children have limited experience and therefore frequently misinterpret what they see and hear. In high stress situations where the fight or flee instincts strongly favour the latter, it’s easy for the emotions to prevent a clear overview of what’s actually happening. In modern America, we can all discount stories of supernatural events. Even if there are cults practising pagan or other religions, they tend to be rather harmless, hiding their rituals away from sight, ever fearful of discovery. So the first part is full of inconclusive facts and deft hints, setting the scene with considerable skill. Indeed, the construction of the plot is meticulous in the way all the details mesh together in unexpected ways. Of course Henry is reckless. This is expected of heroes in this type of situation. As a result he discovers information of a major criminal conspiracy and infers the death of his mother. In a panic, he tries to get off the island with his wife and child but this proves challenging..
During the course of his increasingly desperate attempts to escape, he becomes an unreliable narrator. This is not really his fault. Some of the food or drink he consumes has been spiked with a hallucinogen. Who can blame him for taking a moment to refuel while trying to plan the escape. Unfortunately, this untethers us from reality. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood but I found a lot of the sequences at the end rather tiresome. Although the way all the plot elements come together is wonderful to behold, some of the revelations are less than credible. To take just two unresolved issues as examples. With the benefit of hindsight, are we to assume the girls would not have maimed or killed Henry as a boy when he was cornered on the pier? In the current situation, why is the cult running the scam and what does it do with the money? When it would be so easy to more positively control Henry, allowing him to discover the secret of the condo is distinctly odd. All the membership needs to do once he’s back on the island is feed him the jungle juice and start working on his mind. Making him run around like this is clearly redundant and could get him injured, i.e. it’s only there to pad out the book. Any excuse that the cult wanted to discover whether there was a mole in their ranks is a red herring. Over time it could have worked out the answer after a particular death had been engineered.
So there you have it. The first two-thirds of the book is a marvellous example of how to create atmospheric horror with little touches and flourishes. Even though I lost some patience towards the end, Terminal Island remains an impressive piece of writing and, so long as you don’t mind the increasingly surreal impressions crowding in on our hero’s mind, you will probably find this an excellent addition to the horror canon.
For a review of another book by Walter Greatshell, see Enormity (written under the pseudonym W G Marshall).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This review of Swords of Waar by Nathan Long (Night Shade Books, 2012) is a little complicated so, taking out my barbarian sword, I’m going to cut through to the bone and start with a peremptory instruction.
If you have not read Jane Carver of Waar, read my review (the link is at the bottom of the page). You should read that book first. In a perfect world of books in series, you should always read the first one in the trilogy/series before going on to the second. But suppose you want to be daring, push the envelope just a little, you could read this one first. If you think that’s the edgy thing to do go, read the review of Jane of Waar and substitute this title. Everything I said in general terms about the first and its relationship to Edgar Rice Burroughs applies to this.
If you have read Jane of Waar, I need to clear the air with a brief recital of my reading experience of this Jane Carver sequel. It starts with an, “Oh, God,” which is pretty strong stuff for an atheist like me, “this is just more of the same,” yada yada, “more ERB pastiche,” yada yada, “been there, done that, got the chain-mail T-shirt.” And then about one-third, or perhaps closer to halfway, through I suddenly realised that the initial lack of innovation in the style and the sacrifice of plot originality in repeating the “return to Waar” trope — as in The Gods of Mars by ERB — didn’t matter. I was actually reading a very clever story. Yes, friends, I was seduced by the quality of the narrative into liking this ERB-style stuff all over again.
It’s fucking humiliating, that’s what it is! How can I actually like reading an updated version of period crap, particularly when Nathan Long shot his bolt on the pastiche front in the first book?
Well I like it because it takes itself seriously when it comes to developing a credible plot in an incredible situation. The problem with ERB-style books is usually that the plot is subservient to the pursuit of female pulchritude by excessively muscled heroes with the slaughter of various monsters on the way to the several climaxes and a big fuck-up narrowly avoided at the end. This is not to say there’s no baby-making at or near the end. Under normal circumstances, the relevant couples are insatiable whenever the opportunity presents itself (although the language describing the couplings is usually allusive rather than direct). But the standard ending is disaster narrowly averted or, in some books, the hero being sent back to Earth before he can consolidate his position (that’s Karma Sutra position XXXVI, of course). Ah, yes, I should mention that apart from the fairly extensive use of the verb and adjectival forms of “fuck”, there’s less sexual activity in Swords of Waar than in the first book. This time our happy couple are having cross-cultural problems about how to define their relationship.
She’s made her declaration of love and just wants to get on with life. He’s also declared love but it’s not quite love as biker chicks understand it. Waar’s version of love is one of these deeply sexist social constructs Chaucer would have approved in which the women stay at home and allow the men to do what they do best. The fact this would usually involve dying at an early age after bedding multiple mistresses is not something lost on our heroine. Indeed, it’s her proactive approach to the relationship that’s causing the cultural problem. If her man is in danger, she has no compunction about literally picking him up and carrying him out of danger. Needless to say, he finds this public loss of dignity difficult to accept, what with his code requiring him to be the one doing the carrying. The fact he couldn’t lift her off the ground is not something he would choose to consider when his honour is at stake. Put another way, this social dinosaur needs to get with the flow and let our Earth heroine do her thing, save the planet and bed the man (that’s him, of course). Anyway, this enforced celibacy is good for her soul if not for other parts of her.
Of course, our couple are reunited physically at the end and, as must happen in all ERB-style books, there’s lots of heels kicking and penetrations into the nether regions. That’s after a planetary-scale ejaculation that comes as a result of our heroine’s caresses of the right knobs and buttons. Indeed, in terms of the passage of the years, the eruptions are not at all premature but rather timely. So this is a wonderfully enjoyable romp through the science fantasy landscape except Swords of Waar actually has a brain at work. As we take our journey, we get to consider whether courtly love is good for anything when the majority of the people is oppressed (or people with guns are shooting at you) and whether omnipotent rulers are ever a good thing, even when benignly inclined. In a sense, it all comes down to a simple question. Should the people be allowed to make their own mistakes or should an unaccountable elite group make the mistakes for them? The answer is fun to read.
For a review of the other Jane Carver book, see Jane Carver of Waar.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Prejudice is a terrible burden to live with when the world is changing, which makes the subject of this post somewhat more ironic than usual. As one of the more obsessional book collectors, I’ve grown up and persisted through the decades surrounded by physical books. I still have almost all the books and some of the comics of my childhood and teen years — an example of sentimentality triumphing over common sense. But the bulk of the collection has been sold off. It was a painful sacrifice, but the alternative was even more painful. In fact, I’ll be saying goodbye to the more recent acquisitions soon — probably early in the New Year. Such are the penalties of advancing age and changes in circumstances.
In the midst of all this upheaval, I’ve been watching the technology of book production and content distribution evolve. I do my best to maintain neutrality, trying not to judge the merits of the new devices used for reading. Indeed, I’ve been induced to dip an experimental toe into the dark side. The fact my preferences run strongly against reading text digitally has not stood in the way of my self-appointed role as a reviewer. All too often, the book for review is made available to me in electronic format. I grit my teeth, download to my Mac and scan the screen. Old dog, new tricks and similar idioms leap to mind. Against this background, I note the arrival of Eclipse Online. The anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan have been events to write into diaries, always hoping for, nay, expecting interesting results. Now we learn there are to be no more. The editor is moving with the times and transferring his endeavours online under the umbrella of Night Shade Books. All of which is explained in the first editorial which, in turn, signals the publication of the first story, “The Contrary Gardener” by Christopher Rowe, which you can read here.
The irony I referred to flows from the nature of this first story which is rather cunningly apposite. Imagine a world in which a command economy dictates to the bean or corn cob exactly how much food or other fungibles shall be produced. Waste is not to be tolerated. Efficiency is everything. Although the discipline of the short story prevents any significant detail in the context, it’s also probably reasonable to assume a one-child policy or something equally draconian given that automation has been allowed to take over so many of the “ordinary” jobs like driving the buses. In such a world, overpopulation and unemployment would be a dangerously unstable combination. The point of the story is therefore for our heroine to find balance and harmony. Without being preachy, the author shows us that no-one would be better qualified to make such decisions than a master gardner. We’re concerned with the mechanics of production, nurturing new life and finding a way for it to prosper so it can grow up strong. Sometimes hard decisions and sacrifices have to be made. Indeed, a dramatic end of a lifetime’s work may be required. Or, perhaps, the ending of one way of life may be an opening to something new and different. After all, change is not inherently bad. In the right spirit, it can be the harbinger of good outcomes so long as adaptation to the new circumstances is willing.
So while my belief in printed media will remain strong, the presence of Jonathan Strahan at the helm of Eclipse Online will probably mean the new stories will find their way into my reading schedule. Insert your own idioms about spotted predatory animals at this point.
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2012) demonstrates the art of the editor in balancing the simple against the complicated, the visceral against the thoughtful. As anthologies go, this is completely eclectic. There’s no detectable common denominator except for the tried and trusted “good writing” and “sheer inventiveness”.
“The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King is the work of a consummate professional. It’s obvious from the outset what will happen but, when it does, it brings a round of applause. How can you not admire the technique as the storm rages outside, the generator flickers and the man with a dickey heart does his thing? It’s magnificent melodramatic hokum and all the better for it. Indeed, it’s the inevitability of the ending that spices the horror and makes it so deliciously cruel. “Stay” by Leah Bobet is a particularly pleasing Wendigo story set out in one of these desolate towns where winter snow and ice forces a strong sense of community where everyone looks out for everyone else. To take advantage of this protectiveness, all you have to do is stay. “The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick is a tensely exciting humans hunted story. From my school days, I recall reading about terminal moraines and this certainly meets the definitional requirements as a predatory burrowing creature threatens a couple trying to decide whether their marriage is worth saving. “Blackwood’s Baby” by Laird Barron is a rather beautiful story on several levels. It works well as a piece of period writing, recreating the times when men would disappear into trackless forests to hunt, telling each other stories of their exploits around campfires. It also nicely captures class and national prejudices as this disparate band move further from the beaten track. It has the tense excitement of the hunt itself and, of course, there’s the central mystery of exactly what they are tracking. “Looker” by David Nickle is a very well executed variation on an old idea, nicely carrying through the suspense until the literal catches up with the metaphorical. In Parliamentary terms, when all lean forward to hear the result, the Speaker announces, “The ayes have it!”
“The Show” by Priya Sharma plays nicely with the current vogue for reality television shows exploring paranormal phenomena. With actual injuries sustained and the police involved, this episode would become one of those all-time classics with fascinating consequences for all involved. “Mullberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings and is a very elegant rerunning of stories like the Punktown series by Jeffrey Thomas, describing the commercial exploitation of aliens as food or the source of drugs. This time, the trope is played as an exploitation of an indigenous people with a delightfully casual piece of surgery performed on a live source for our edification. “Roots and All” by Brian Hodge is a wonderfully evocative piece of writing. Although it contains a supernatural creature and a murder, it’s really a story about love and sacrifice, about the need for balance in all things as we fight for what we believe in and take responsibility for our own actions.
“Final Girl Theory” by A C Wise is pleasingly inferential, playing a metafictional game as our obsessive movie buff catches sight of the leading lady from a cult horror film and follows her home. The questions, of course, are whether anything shown in the original film was real and, if so, whether that means there’s any kind of threat to him now. “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn demonstrates that, sometimes, relying on a map is not enough. Sometimes you have to throw the map away and just rely on your instincts to get where you really want to go, right into the heart of everything. “Dermot” by Simon Bestwick shows that we’re in the modern age. In earlier times, Faust made a pact with the Devil. Today’s police force manages an exchange of value with Dermot even though people lose their souls in the process. “Black Feathers” by Alison Littlewood is a story that plays with the idea of transformation. This time it should have been of a child into a man but, on the way, something got left out. It’s always strange to see not only how protective older children can be, but also how often the younger ones decline to grow up as their elders intend. “The Final Verse” by Chet Williamson is a marvellous piece of country lore coming to us through the agency of bluegrass music — just another form of oral history, passed down through the generations and speaking truth to us if only we have the wit to understand the lyrics. This time, a folk music historian finds the holy grail, the last verse of an all-time classic. Except it means what it says and that’s a little unfortunate for him.
“In the Absence of Murdoch” by Terry Lamsley (first published in House of Fear). When I read this back in January, I said, “This should be a contender for an award for best short story of the year.” My opinion has not changed. “You Become the Neighborhood” by Glen Hirshberg is a genuinely strange recounting of events as a mother tells her now grown-up daughter what it was that made her just a little less than sane. Were it not the for confirmation of a neighbour, the daughter might dismiss this account as the ravings of a distressed mind. “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronus” by John Langan (first published in Supernatural Noir) works rather better in this context, i.e. as a pure supernatural tale rather than as a supposed to fit into a “noir” themed anthology. “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska makes you wonder just what you might give up if your life was on the line. Finally, “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” by Peter Straub takes us on a meditative voyage where everything is pared back to its essentials, until there’s nothing left except for the possibility of love and the final desire to experience a swim in the river of life.
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four is a sensationally good anthology yet I have two entirely redundant thoughts. At the beginning, Ellen Datlow says, “The writers live in the United States, Australia, England, The Netherlands, and Canada.” The eiusdem generis rule of interpretation says you should always list things of the same status. All but England are sovereign nation states. England is a “province” of Great Britain, i.e. not even a unified law area which, technically speaking, would make it a “state” — for domicile purposes the “state” is now formally “England and Wales”. Secondly, the copyright acknowledgements are out of sequence suggesting that, at some point, “Dermot” was intended as the penultimate story.
For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
Blood and other cravings
It’s a curious coincidence that this book opens with a problem I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Being one of the dinosaurs, I’m still hoarding my collection of singles and LPs accumulated over the early years. I copied the 78s to tape many moons ago but I worry about how long the tapes will remain playable. Like Martin Seymour in Zendegi by Greg Egan (Night Shade Books, 2010), I dream of digitising all the recordings but find myself lacking the will. My wife has little interest and will not shed many tears if the original recordings are put on to the funeral pyre when my body is finally sent on its way. She’s not a Hindu and, therefore, would not consider sati (or suthi) an appropriate way of celebrating my death. But relieving herself of the option of replaying some of the hits from the 1950s might give her peace in her remaining years.
Anyway, Martin discovers that, unless you carefully check the sound levels on all the records to be transferred to the computer, it’s very easy to end up with wave shaping, i.e. distorted sound. Being something of a perfectionist, that would mean I could not listen to any of the affected tracks. Because he’s pressed for time, Martin makes the discovery after he has disposed of the originals. This loss makes him sad. But, in a more serious way, it also foreshadows the problems explored in this book. It all starts with the efforts of Nasim Golestani to map the part of a finch’s brain that decides what song to sing. She eventually creates a computer model that replicates bird song. It’s not clear how successful this is because it’s a bit difficult to ask real finches what they think of the tone and melody produced by the computerised version. The rest of the book then moves up to artificial intelligence experiments on replicating human abilities. Not unnaturally, there are some rich people who think it would be just dandy to have themselves uploaded and so achieve immortality.
Greg Egan keeps this real in his consistent rejection of the notion it would be possible to make a recording of anyone’s brain waves and so reproduce the human being. The best his scientists can manage is the replication of physical skills in avatars. Zendegi is a gaming platform and the owners make a lot of money out of people wanting to play football and other sports alongside or against their favourite players. Even inducing natural language abilities is fraught with difficulty because, like the bird song, computers have no understanding of how and why each individual note is significant. So avatars can be given access to comprehensive vocabularies but, even with multiple brain scans taken over months, there’s no consistency in the avatar’s performance as the target human. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to “clone” a human personality by digitising his or her brain waves.
This is not to say that avatars could not undertake routine tasks and so displace the need for human labour. For example, it might be possible to build systems sophisticated enough to replace call centre staff or to perform other tasks not relying on face-to-face contact with real people. In a sense, this is simply extending the displacement of the thousands of administrative and secretarial staff in the management of any business. With software able to take dictation from bosses who refuse to learn how to type, there’s no longer a need for shorthand and typing skills sitting expensively in another office, nor for the clerks who file all the paper copies of correspondence generated, nor for the filing cabinets thereby closing down industrial production and terminating further jobs. All forms of automation seriously limit the need for human workers. Machines are cheaper and, once they have learned the jobs, make fewer mistakes. So, in all this continuing debate about the extent to which real world societies should allow the development of automated systems, Greg Egan is asking and answering some relevant questions.
However, I find it strange he should place most of the action in a near-future Iran. Although it’s certainly relevant to consider whether, in any sense, machines might capture souls, the political backstory to this novel simply gives us a thriller scenario and does not significantly advance the science fiction element. I’m not convinced the Islamic reaction to the phenomenon of avatars in a gaming environment is constructive in advancing the plot. The reaction of the Christians to the Zendegi project and another US-based attempt to create a massive AI capable of running human government is somewhat predictable and not given much space for development. Indeed, the whole tenor of the book is less science fictional than I expected. The first third is more or less a straight thriller about journalism, and the latter two-thirds is the increasingly sentimental story of Martin and his son. Although the two parts of the book do tie together in the relationship between Martin and Omar — initially a neighbour who gets involved in helping Martin get the news — Martin is somewhat self-absorbed as a person and fails to understand the significance of the relationship. He sees surface reality and is not particularly good in assessing the person underneath. As an early incident shows, you can dress up a man in women’s clothing but this does not convert the man into a woman. Gender identity is based on the whole package of the personality, the physical behaviour and the context. Similarly, you can capture features of human behaviour in avatars on Zandegi, but this does not make them human.
So Zendegi is a sentimental journey through life made by a two slightly inadequate people. Neither Martin nor Nasim are particularly successful as humans although they do manage to get things done. They work on a project together and it fails. I think that sums it all up really. The book is good in part but unsatisfying because it fails to really engage with the social and political implications of the work being done. We see it but there’s not enough meaningful discussion of it. The real questions are whether something approximating human is better than nothing and, if what you create is a kind of Frankenstein monster, would it be moral and legal to kill it by wiping it from the server?
For another review of a book by Greg Egan see The Clockwork Rocket.
The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan, Book 1 in the Orthogonal series (Night Shade Books, 2011), has proved to be an experiment too far for me. Over the years, I’ve read and, for the most part, enjoyed Greg Egan’s short stories. When I mentioned his name, however, there were always faintly worried expressions from those who know me. I never asked why. They might tell me I was looking even closer to death than usual. So I was left with an optimistic view that here was a hard-SF writer who actually produced accessible fiction, albeit only in the short form. For the record, I need to interject a small historical note. I gave up on physics rather more than fifty years ago. I found electricity experiments like the wheatstone bridge alarming — even rewiring a plug was challenging for me — and the suggestion I might apply anything more than basic addition and subtraction from the maths realm was enough to induce intellectual anaphylactic shock. Put simply, top-class boffins had only just invented the transistor when this old dog was trying to recreate Pepper’s Ghost, so the notion of anything actually amounting to cutting-edge physics was, and remains, completely alien to me.
At this point, it’s perhaps convenient to show the amount of background work Greg Egan has done to create this universe: Orthogonal Background Notes. It would be alright if it was written in Greek. I was good at Greek at school. But seeing the detailed work invested before actually sitting down to write the story is one of the most dispiriting things it has been my misfortune to encounter. My long-suffering friends were right. This type of book is not for me. Anyone who has to insert graphics into the text to explain what’s going on has lost the battle for my attention. If it can’t clearly be expressed in words anyone of ordinary intelligence can understand, nothing diagrammatic is going to help. By my standards, it’s not proper fiction.
So, here we have a strange bunch of aliens. I admit complete ignorance as to the nature their world. All I can say about it with any degree of certainty is that it does appear to go round a sun. As to the locals, they have a distinctive process of reproduction which depends on either the gynogenesis or parthenogenesis of the females. This leaves single dads with the responsibility of bring up the twins or quads. It’s very unusual for a solo or a triple to be produced. Needless to say, this has produced an extreme patriarchalism with women not only expected to be generally subservient, but “wives” treated as property and, as runaways, subject to forcible return to their “husbands” by enthusiastic male police officers. It’s all magnificently Victorian in the Regina v Jackson sense. This was a case in 1891 in which a husband kidnapped his wife who had refused to live with him and forcibly detained her in the “matrimonial home”. The Court of Queen’s Bench refused habeas corpus to free her, confirming a husband, “. . .had a right to the custody of his wife unless he uses it for some improper purpose. . .” This was the last time habeas corpus was refused as the Court of Appeal changed the law to assert a wife’s right to personal freedom. One small step towards equality.
Anyway, in this fictional society, our heroine, Yalda, is a solo born into a remote farming community. But she proves to have a big brain to go with the outsize body and is soon moving up through the academic ranks. On the way, she encounters the usual backbiting from jealous peers and intimidated lecturing staff. This is aggravated by her status as a female solo. To keep her from spontaneously producing two or four children and therefore ceasing to be a thorn in the sides on all those who would banish her from their equivalent of the ivory (red) towers, she takes a “contraceptive”. Thus fortified, she proceeds to identify a possible threat to her world. In fact, she has time to work out the science of it while lying in a jail cell for assaulting the son of someone politically powerful. Now there’s a literal and metaphorical division of labour required. A close friend divides leaving the question of who will assume responsibility for the children’s upbringing. And then there’s the need to convince the authorities it will be necessary to produce a “rocket” to take some people away from, and then back to, wherever it is they are. Somehow this will ensure life can continue. In the midst of what follows as our little band of doomsayers tries to rally public support, is some discussion of temporal causality which I more or less followed, but all this physics, particularly when it gets into what I take to be relativity, is just beyond me. We have the usual attempted sabotage as we come up to the launch and then the ethical problem of what to do with the misguided saboteur. All this is predictable as is the physical confusion when they encounter zero gravity. Growing food when the plants don’t know which way is up is a challenge.
So what this comes down to is that these people live in a place and face a threat I don’t understand. On the off chance they need to save themselves, they propose to send out a rocket. In causal terms, this may save the race by changing the future or not. I really don’t know. So if this sounds like your kind of book (with lots of explanatory charts and diagrams thrown in) you will be in your element with The Clockwork Rocket. But if, like me, you have the scientific ability of an amoeba and the attention span of a gnat, walk quietly on the other side.
The full artwork for for jacket from Cody Tilson is spectacular.
For a review of another book by Greg Egan, see Zendegi.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2012) starts off with a gem in its own right. Although it’s only the first chapter, it could be a free-standing short story retelling the Rumpelstiltskin myth with such verve and inventiveness, you want it to continue. Except you’re then abruptly moved forward in time to 1958 when Donald Miller and his wife Michelle, née Mock, go on a trip to Mexico City courtesy of Louis Plimpton, one of his wife’s colleagues. When his wife goes missing, Don tries to find her and is almost killed in weird circumstances he finds very difficult to recall. In 1980 agents, certainly government and possibly FBI or an early version of the NSA, are present at the death of a Person of Interest at Wenatchee, one Louis Plimptom. We then jump up-to-date with Don and Michelle into their retirement years although she stays more active, going off on trips every now and then. They live quietly in the Waddell Valley, possibly close to the The Sanguine Stone. So, the book hits the ground running and then slows to a walking pace before taking off again.
Now here’s the thing about families. Most of this happy couple’s relatives are either missing in action or sufficiently weird there’s no regular contact with them. Don has spent a lifetime as a geologist, both commercial and academic, and, not surprisingly, was an active spelunker when young. Michelle acted the part of a mainstream scientist, but was actually obsessed with the idea there are little people who live underground — as I recall, the fairy story reports Rumpelstiltskin was of small stature. Now, apart from trips with friends, Michelle largely restricts herself to the investigation of her family tree. The early Mocks, particularly the women, seem to fascinate her. Strangely, their son is prone to sleepwalking and has been found in odd places around the house and outhouses. He may also have memory lapses, and had a strange supernatural experience during a séance when a teen. But that’s new history.
Going back to our happy couple, the common denominator who brought them together in the 1950s was Professor Plimpton. He worked at the university they attended. When they eloped to marry, he let them use his farmhouse in Wenatchee. Indeed, he was the main driving force behind much of Michelle’s early work. That’s why they were saddened by the news of his death in 1980 and attended his funeral. Later that day, they went on to the Wolverton Mansion, perched high on a cliff overlooking a forest, for the wake. But Don’s memory of that evening and what he heard about the relationship between his grandfather, father and an unrelated young man vaguely connected to the Mock family somehow slipped his mind. Indeed, a lot of things have disappeared from his mind and only some of them have later returned.
This marks the nature of the narrative. As with all good unreliable narrators, the ageing Don is increasingly aware of just how much he might have forgotten. Obviously, by virtue of the memory losses, he doesn’t know how significant these gaps may be. But there are times when odd snippets surface. Indeed, in itself, the re-emergence of memories is strange. If his brain forgets certain events so completely, why should there be moments when he remembers odd events? Perhaps it’s all part of some cosmic plan. Yet what possible role could a mere mortal like Don play if other worldly forces are involved? Such is the underlying mystery as we slowly begin to see how the pieces in the jigsaw fit together. In this, Laird Barron is building on “Mysterium Tremendum” in which four men find a copy of The Black Guide. This small travel guide suggests there’s a dolmen somewhere in the foothills of Mystery Mountain out on the Olympic Peninsula. Their trip into the forest to find it proves challenging. So, Don’s life may somehow be set on a trajectory that will also bring him to Mystery Mountain. Planning such a life journey would require an ability to transcend time and exercise considerable influence over human affairs.
To get a better understanding of this scenario, think about the fiction of Arthur Machen who warns against lifting the veil to reveal forbidden mysteries. He, more than any other author of his time, was fascinated by the relationship between specific places and the mind, suggesting that sensitive people might connect with otherness by being the lonely figure on a landscape or, in our case, a cave system. In this, he was expanding on the idea of genius loci, the religious concept from Ancient Rome, in which numinous spirits interact with the mind. H. P. Lovecraft recognised his debt to Arthur Machen in developing the Cthulhu Mythos and, others following in Lovecraft’s footsteps have built on the supposed power of a place to produce a link between a human mind and different orders of being.
Laird Barron is one of the best of the writers currently exploring how this traditional cosmic environment can be developed to make the fiction more appealing to our modern sensibilities. He’s Lovecraftian in the general sense of the word, but he increasingly blends old-fashioned weird with Mythos tropes in modern settings to produce a different perspective from which to view old gods and monsters. The Croning, his first novel, sees him invest significant effort in Don, a character with whom we can readily empathise as he tries to reconstruct his memories and so find peace of mind. Then we have the detail of the family backgrounds and the careful structuring of the story to move us around in time. Once we have all the relevant information in our hands, it’s mounting dread as we accelerate towards the final revelations. Anyone even vaguely interested in cosmic horror with Lovecraftian overtones should read this. It’s beautifully paced and wonderfully innovative.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the most interesting features of information available to us is how quickly it enters the left ear and leaves by the right with almost nothing to show it ever spent time in-between. Yet, every now and again, one phrase or, in some extraordinary cases, an entire sentence will magically lodge itself in long-term memory. It’s as if we always knew this new thing yet never recognised it before. For example, in V for Vendetta, we discover that, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” We always knew you can’t kill an idea with bullets, but this scene somehow personalises it. We also know the same thing can happen to faith. The major religions of the world and their antithesis atheism seem to have weathered various attempts to eradicate them. Sometimes, the harder you push against a belief system, the harder it pushes back.
One of the times when the battle between faith and its enemies was drawn in more epic terms was during the Enlightenment. Not only were rationalism in general and science in particular threatening to displace ideas thought divinely defined, but religion itself was experiencing the Protestant reaction against the Catholic Church started by Martin Luther. This produced a period of intense conflict both physical and political as the emerging secular governments began to assert their right to rule without interference from the pulpits. At this point, let’s consider one simple proposition. In the opera houses throughout Italy, the emotion of life was expressed in newly permitted romanticism. Through the music, audiences could soar to new heights of passion and understanding. In the churches, sung masses were also developing into major musical events where massed voices were raised in celebration of the divine. When both secular and religious music was performed, there was always the possibility of “faith healing”. People in churches might be able to throw away crutches and walk again. People might leave an opera house with a depression lifted. In modern medicine, we talk learnedly of the placebo effect. In those times, such occurrences were considered miraculous or in need of scientific exploration to determine the cause.
So, in The Black Opera by Mary Gentle (Night Shade Books, 2012) let’s assume an alternate world, not unlike our own, in which a third party group emerges to represent the interests of the Prince of Darkness. Now we come to the problem of coincidence. Suppose this group believes in the power of music to change the world in the literal sense. They try an experiment and, while singing a Black Opera to their version of Krakatoa, it explodes and shrouds the world in volcanic ash. Not worrying whether there’s actual cause and effect, this group now plans a second performance. This time, they will sing to Mount Etna or Stromboli or both. Should the local Kings get wind of this plan, they would obviously commission a countervailing opera. We’re in Sicily and the King must find someone he can trust to produce it. At first, he gets the best in Italy to come to Sicily, but all their efforts are frustrated by illnesses and accidents — i.e. subtle sabotage. The project is abandoned as cursed. So he turns to an atheist librettist to pull something out of the fire. I forgot to mention this poet has only six weeks to bring the finished performance to the stage. Fortunately his cross-dressing sister thinks she’s a composer and a top-class violinist so she can also conduct. Now let’s be clear. There’s no need for anyone to believe Mount Etna will actually erupt, but it’s the idea that it might. . . Once it enters the heads of the King and his confidants, it’s not something that can be ignored. The idea has become bulletproof.
Anyway, our librettist is short of inspiration so, naturally, he resists the temptation to bounce ideas off the ghost of his father. He’s sworn an oath of secrecy and can’t trust his father not to talk out of turn. Perhaps someone ought to exorcise the father. Then the King selects a noble-born Count to write the music. He’s a poser who thinks he’s a composer with the librettist’s ex-lover as his wife, except she’s dead — this first zombie is only included because she’s a Countess and blessed with the most beautiful voice opera has ever heard. That’s always going to be a social challenge to add to the shortness of time to get words and music together. Then there’s the problem of the librettist’s dead father’s debts. Surprising, really, how quickly these distractions are piling up. Then the rehearsal theatre burns down. As you will gather, this is a fantasy with a sense of humour. Perhaps all this should become the libretto. It has all the drama. Surely no-one would miss hearing about an Aztec Princess anyway?
While he’s waiting for the music to catch up to his words, our librettist is sent off on a secret mission. The Satanic Cult is planning to destabilise the King of Sicily and something has to be done. After a successful outcome, it’s into the catacombs to continue the rehearsals while rumblings in Etna suggest the Black Opera is also in rehearsal. And then comes a revelation that changes everything! And here’s something to chew on while you read the book. If there was an eruption, there would be a lot of dead people. . .
I can’t remember reading a fantasy with such sensibilities before. It’s a magnificent blend of our history and a radically different alternate history in which religion and rationalism clash in a completely unexpected way. I was entranced by the possibility of our atheist librettist being able to debate theology with the dead. Anyway, putting this speculation to one side, I’m reminded of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. In both our history and this fantasy world, humanity might give meaning to life through a belief in a God. Indeed, the absence of such a belief would be likely to produce a dangerously unstable nihilism. So if an Übermensch was to emerge, it would create a new set of values affirming the value of continued existence without having to rely on Platonic idealism. In such a case, the Übermensch would not be an individual. It would probably take the form of a Volksgeist, a spirit collectively representing the human race, or at least a substantial part of it.
At this point, I apologise to my readers. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by philosophical issues that are not directly relevant to The Black Opera. Mary Gentle is playing with some heavyweight themes, but you don’t need to be interested in such background issues to enjoy this book. So here comes the headline. I was entranced, but I acknowledge that I’m a sucker for big idea books. It’s a wonderful story capturing the detail of how to write and stage an opera in six weeks, hoping it will somehow prevent a volcanic eruption. If that’s all you want, you will enjoy this book. If you want more, you only have to look beneath the surface of what happens when the curtain finally goes up.
And will you just look at the fabulous cover artwork from Sam Burley! Everyone who likes spectacular art should take a moment to look at his site.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.