Archive for June, 2009

The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum

We all have our weaknesses and foibles. Ostensibly, they give each one of us some degree of uniqueness and individuality, separating us from the herd by the foolishness of our eccentricities. The reality is less flattering (as if that was possible). Because most of us are aware of our weaknesses but do little or nothing to curb them, we cultivate our personalities in a loam leavened with a fertiliser whose origin may be all too human in a fundamental way. As to me, I am a complainer. I make it sound better by describing myself as a campaigner for consumer rights — after all, if no-one ever complained, we would all get second-rate service. But I enjoy fighting with people. One of my pet peeves is the practice in some pubs to serve a pint of beer which includes the head. To me, the order of a specific volume of liquid requires satisfaction by the delivery of just that amount. To deliver less than one pint is a breach of contract. Indeed, CAMRA reports that one quarter of all pints sold in the UK are 95% or less than one pint. Since the law is unclear, I am a personal crusader and always ask for my “pints” to be topped up.


Which brings me to The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum, a collection of short stories where the need for substance meets the froth of style resulting in an unhappy mixture. The author is hyped as one who engages in surrealism or absurdism. Coming to the fore in the period immediately following WWI and flourishing in the 1920s, surrealism has a genuine historical pedigree. Whether “classical” surrealism has survived into our postmodernist world is the subject of some academic debate which need not trouble us here. Suffice it to say, I do not find Rosenbaum’s work to be surrealist, although I do concede some absurdism and satire.


The lead story, “The Ant King” is a satire on life in California. At one level, we might generously find parallels with Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco save that, instead of everyone turning into a herd of Rhinoceros, the people of California become exaggerated versions of themselves. This is not to deny there are odd flashes of wit and humour, but the whole is somewhat thin. Following Ionesco, we then have elephants that socialise but are fickle, shape changers that are voyeurs of death, and giants who hide in a distant valley. Rosenbaum certainly likes to attempt surprise but given that most stories are only a page or so long, he offers us only a few opportunities to observe how he might develop the ideas. Sometimes the ideas are satisfying: human-transmissible viruses which enable a new interface with the prevailing computer network and memories stored in commensuals that live from one host generation to the next and allow a form of eternal life to those whose memories are strongest. When it all works well, it’s really good as in “Red Leather Tassels” which contrives to match coincidence with improbability to excellent effect. The stand-out story is “A Siege of Cranes” which is a more conventional fantasy story, nicely capturing the transformation of a humble man into someone who can defeat the White Witch. Perhaps the price he has to pay for the courage to achieve this is one we might all be willing to pay.


But, overall, I found the collection tiresome. When at length as in “Biographical Note” and “Sense and Sensibility”, he can become overly impressed by his own cleverness. When the author thinks so little of an idea that it is thrown away in three or four hundred words, or prefers superficialities to substance, I walk away unsatisfied. The one underlying reality of a pint of beer is that at least 95% of it is usually substance that one enjoys drinking. Sadly, the balance in this collection favours the froth and, thus, represents poor value for money.


The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.

One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.

Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).

I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.

As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.

For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.

Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro

Ignoring the old chestnut of the nature/nurture debate, we contrive to become people as we age. How successful we are depends on a variety of factors varying from blind luck to judicious planning. As we look back on the roads we have travelled, some moments stand out as signposts, vaguely pointing us in potentially desirable directions. In a retrospective mood, I am arbitrarily reminded of two quite different moments. The first comes from an early foray into Sherlock Holmes where, during an investigation into the disappearance of Silver Blaze, Holmes enigmatically opined that the failure of the dog to bark was a “curious incident”. The beauty of this is that it leaves something completely obvious lying out in the open for all to see, waiting only for the author to explain just why silence is so revealing. The second was a cartoon introducing an article in a serious periodical about how one assesses credibility in a narrative. It showed a crocodile on trial for murder and, under cross-examination, it was retorting, “Of course, I’m cold-blooded. I’m a reptile, you idiot!”

Humour done well is always satisfying because it punctures the self-importance of an individual or group. In Biter, Bit moments, those who make a living out of criminal trials always look to twist words to show people in the best or worst possible light. Trying to convince a jury that an accused is a cold-blooded killer seems a sound strategy yet such statements of the obvious are often double-edged. When it comes to judging the credibility of witnesses, we use our own experience of life. If we were in a similar situation, what would we do? What have we seen others say and do in such situations? If there is a general trend and the accused matches this model, the characterisation of the accused is more credible. But if the accused claims feelings and emotions out of step with our experience, this accused lacks credibility. Once we enter the world of fiction, the same rules apply to naturalistic storytelling. We empathise and identify with the characters who tend to act as we would act. So, even though Sherlock Holmes is clearly in a league of his own, Watson, Lestrade and others represent the humans of ordinary ability as foils to the great detective. All great problem solvers require a sidekick to ask the everyman questions. If the author trespasses into “unnatural” surroundings, he or she needs to define the rules. If there is new science or magic, how is it supposed to work? Now, when we see people reacting to these new environments, we have expectations on how they will react. When done well, they will act credibly.

I confess to being a sucker for books that unashamedly wear their intelligence on their sleeves. Perhaps I have a general control freaky that prefers ‘i’ to be dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Whatever the reason, I find myself immediately seduced when an author thinks so clearly on paper that every answer to every question just feels right. There is, of course, a trap because some authors are just too clever for their own good. Their imagination produces situations so baroque and unreal that there is little interest in disentangling their Gordian Knots. They become self-indulgent. But, as in Castro’s case, the best authors are minimalist, doing only as much as they need to get the situation defined and the characters off and running. Then, if dogs happen not to bark, this adds to the pleasure of the experience when the silence is later explained.

No-one can ever say with certainty why it happens. It may be an entirely objective assessment of a book — that there is something so powerful about it that it demands to be heard. Or it may be that there is a coincidence of mood — that the reader is predisposed, for some unquantifiable reason, to be entranced by a book. There is never certainty in life. All I can say is that, in this instance, I am in awe of Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro. How or why this has happened is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that this was a book I read from cover to cover in a single sitting, determined to see how it all played out in the end. This is a cross-genre book blending science fiction and a mystery element. It begins with Counsellor Andrea Cort arriving on an artificial environment created by alien intelligences. She has been sent (or summoned) to investigate the murder of two members of a human team invited by the aliens to observe the habitat and its “animals”. The task looks simple. There are a limited number of people in a closed environment. Picking out which one is the “villain” should not be too taxing. Except little is what it appears to be and, thanks to the initially unobtrusive way in which the narrative develops, we are suddenly pitched into successively different explorations of the environment in which the “cast” find themselves. Everything is exactly what it appears to be except that it takes a magician to keep showing us why the dogs are not barking. There is a reason for everything and I found myself tipping my hat to the author on a regular basis as what was standing in plain sight was so elegantly reinterpreted. Is Andrea Cort a new Sherlock Holmes? Well, I doubt Castro had him in mind when creating this character and the thinking processes are rather different. But both have their own demons and see the world through eyes that are somehow better able to see beyond the surface reality and to ask the questions we would all like to think we could ask given the time to think and analyse. I suspect Doyle would have enjoyed this novel. It has a strong story and a continuously inventive way of entertaining us with understated intelligence.

For once, I will not engage in any spoilers or discussions of the way in which the narrative is developed. I suspect everyone will find their own delights and I will not risk spoiling the moments by my own heavy-handedness. Let me simply recommend it as a must read. Hopefully, the sequel will be just as good.

For my review of the sequel, see The Third Claw of God and an outstanding collection Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories.

Template by Matthew Hughes

Never one to be shy, my Grandmother’s lexicon of bon mots occasionally brought shades of dark violence into the home. As indicated in an earlier post, one of my favourites was, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun.” She had been brought up in the houses of the well-to-do in Victorian Yorkshire. The Dales were dotted with old colonels who retreated into their smoking rooms or studies to bask under the baleful eyes of all the animals they had shot while serving abroad. No self-respecting officer could ever come home from an overseas posting without a wall full of heads. Yet, in the tradition of fishermen who always tell stories of the one that got away, so officers would tell of the fierce creatures they would have shot had they had the chance. All this came to mind the other day as my wife and I were sitting in the shade outside a local coffeeshop. A young lady walked by. She attracted attention because, in the mid-afternoon sun, her dress was almost completely transparent. She seemed not to care that every eye, male and female alike, followed her confident stride. This was a woman at peace with who she was. With no British colonels around, she was safe.

In fictional worlds, it is a somewhat tired trope that heroes, uncertain of their ancestry, should set out on a quest to determine their identity. A recent example of this is Template by Matthew Hughes who is ploughing the same furrow as Jack Vance with some success. I confess to being a major Vance fan, and a mild fan of the Hughes/Vancean style. The problem with overtly maintaining a style is that, over time, it pales by comparison with the original. Jack is always Jack even when he is past his best, which he was in the last published effort. You forgive an old man these parting gestures because of the oeuvre he leaves behind. He is original to the end. Hughes, however, grows somewhat repetitive. The early works, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, are the best because he was so obviously having fun. Now that he is stuck in the groove, I have the sense that he is going through the motions.

So it is with this book. It adopts the peregrination or picaresque model as our somewhat roguish hero travels from one world to the next, observing the local cultures and gleaning information that may lead him to his identity. It would have been better at two-thirds the length. The idea underpinning the narrative is reasonable and the execution competent, but he doth protest too much. The message is tired by the time it is delivered and, despite some pallid satire, there is just not quite enough wit and invention to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I wanted it to be good but I was somewhat disappointed.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent

Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key by Kage Baker

As a survival characteristic, I was programmed to catch every conceivable disease going. That way, I would get it all out of the way early on and have immunity for the rest of my life. This meant that, as a child, I spent many weeks flat on my back, vaguely contemplating death a couple of times, while my mother, desperate to distract me from my physical woes, read the classics of fiction to me. It seems I was destined to be a well-read survivor. So, my encounter with Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson came early on, closely followed by Verne’s Lighthouse at the End of the World and Mysterious Island. This gave me a fascination for stories about the sea and pirates. The discovery of Conan Doyle’s Tales of Pirates and Blue Water simply added fuel to the flames and, before you could say, “Long John Silver”, I was off with Captain Sharkey and enjoying the spookiness of the Polestar. Yet, even with a fair wind behind you, the repetition of the tropes becomes boring and interest wanes over time. One waits for someone to come along to reinvigorate or reinvent the genre so that the same dishes can be enjoyed all over again.

A brave attempt was made by William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan to produce a musical entertainment, Victorian style, in The Pirates Of Penzance Or The Slave Of Duty. J. M. Barrie also takes firm aim at the clichés by having his pirates become the butt of Peter Pan’s youthful exuberance. Hollywood briefly entertained by making the thugs debonair and daring with Errol Flynn and others bringing wit and charm to the roles. Then, equal opportunities bore fruit with Jean Peters and Geena Davis swashing their buckles along with the men. More recently the Muppets and Johnny Depp have been entertaining rather than frightening. Along the way, there was more serious fictional meat from C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian who combine historical accuracy and intelligent storytelling. While others engaged in more overt silliness by transplanting pirates to science fictional settings with Edgar Rice Burroughs and others relocating the tropes to Alien Mains. But, to my mind, with the possible exception of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser which brings a brilliant over-the-top lunacy to the subject, no-one has really “rescued” the pirate novel.

Thus, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key by Kage Baker. When she is on form, Baker is a highly entertaining writer and the sustained inventiveness of the Company saga which does, incidentally, have a pirate element to it, encouraged me to set prejudice to one side. If someone can reinvent the “cyborg” tropes as a time-travel device, then this author can single-handedly do something to breathe new life into old pirate stories. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed within the first few pages. Indeed, as I continued to read, I simply grew more angry. This is nothing more than an outline an author might dash off in haste to prove to a willing publisher that a book can be delivered on the given topic — everyone expecting that, upon acceptance, the author will then sit down to more seriously “write” the book. There is no attempt to flesh out the catalogue of clichéd plot devices. Everything is flat, simplistic rather than simple, completely devoid of context and setting, and one dimensional where we might have expected two or even three dimensions. There are no interior monologues to illuminate character and motivation, no omniscient author to give us hints and insights. It is a plot, with some dialogue and the minimum possible number of words to get to the end.

I note the irony because, in other posts, I rant about the failure of editors to take out their blue pencils and cut away all the dead wood. Here we have the exact reverse. The publisher should have said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to the manuscript as delivered. This is not a book that should be allowed out into the real world at $35 without a health warning. In the good old, bad old days when editors did cut chunks of redundant prose out of already overblown novels, these excisions did appear in print but more honestly labelled. Thus, for example, Stephen Donaldson was told to cut down his first draft of The Illearth War, the resulting deletions being picked up and published by Underwood Miller as The Gilden Fire. But there was no attempt to deceive the reading public. This was for the die-hard fans as deleted content. Unfortunately, Subterranean Press has chosen to advertise Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key as an “exclusive pirate novel” as if this is some special event. I despair of publishers. They talk themselves into contracts with “big name” authors and then get caught with the sorry task of having to promote something not even third-rate to get their money back on the advance.

Well, as a sucker who shelled out $35 for this drivel, I can only advise you to wait until the word-of-mouth spreads. This will soon be hitting the second-hand market for a few dollars. If you really do feel the need to see just how bad this is, you need not waste any serious sum of money to find out. In mid 2009, I see has two copies going at $5 plus shipping. That’s about the right price to pay.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Women of Nell Gwynne’sEmpress of Mars, The House of the Stag, The Bird of the River, and Not Less Than Gods.

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

June 30, 2009 1 comment

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas

June 30, 2009 7 comments

I was a Spock child. This does not mean my parents had pointy ears and a tendency to say, “Live long and prosper”. But rather they were followers of Benjamin McLane of that ilk, who did wantonly produce a book on child rearing. It swept around the world and, for better or worse, my parents adopted the idea that I should be raised as an individual. So, from an early age, I was treated as a young adult and consulted on how I would like to lead my life. Except, of course, when parents knew better. The main area in which they asserted better knowledge was how to grow up strong and healthy. I was therefore liberally dosed with cod liver oil. So, most of my circle of acquaintance quickly learned the power of the word “halitosis” as my exhaled breath came to resemble the output of the local fish glue factory. This ensured Spock’s individualism applied to me as no-one would come near me for fear I might speak.

All this, for now, brings me to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who, in 1826, wrote a book called Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante in which he offered the profound remark, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, et je te dirai ce que tu es.” This roughly translates as, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” The more modern version of the original French idea is, “We are what we eat”. By this circuitous route, we come to Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison, and other novels about the ruthless exploitation of humans and aliens for food and other purposes. In modern terms, the saying now is, “Conspiracy theorists of worlds unite, you have nothing to lose but your urban myths.”

Science fiction enjoys speculating on the capacity of the human race for evil. This is not to say that there are no redeeming features in individual humans or that aliens are not just as bad. But the plot of Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas is built around an unfortunate discovery when the human race meet the Ha Jiin. It seems that, when buried underground, dead Ha Jiin bodies give off a gas as they decompose. This gas has vital properties for humans. They decide the burial grounds must be tapped. Worse, if there are not enough bodies, ways must be found to increase the death rate. So, just as humans on Earth go to war for access to water, agricultural land and minerals, future wars can be fought over gas. The cause and effect get morally interesting for a balance must be struck between life and death to ensure continuity of supply over time. The solution is to “liberate” an oppressed group who agree to allow humans free access to their burial chambers.

The immediate story is told as a PI investigation set some years after the end of the war. The fragile peace is being literally undermined as a new human terraforming system goes rogue and consumes land occupied by both majority Ha Jiin and the newly independent Jin Haa. The unstoppable expansion threatens to destablise the three-way relationship because access to the burial chambers is also blocked. Our hero, Jeremy Stake, moves between the human and Ha Jiin as he tries to understand exactly what forces are at work. There are conspiracies and corruption on both sides. There are also redeeming individuals prepared to do the right thing as old battle lines are redrawn and better understandings are reached. In a sense, the novel is a metaphor for a study of identity. People wear different faces as warriors and lovers, as governments and vested interests, as racketeers, terrorists and religious leaders. In some senses, these words have no fixed meanings. People may be labelled collaborator, warrior, terrorist, hero or traitor depending on who records the history and what their motives are in the telling. So when we meet these people, we can either take them at “face” value or look beneath to see their strengths and weaknesses.

Is this a perfect book? As if there ever could be a “perfect” anything. We can always find minor irritations. It suffers from the contemporary fad of being too long. Books like A Case of Conscience by James Blish are better for being short. But this is moderately economical as many modern books go and the narrative moves along at a reasonable pace. The exposition is kept to a minimum and well embedded. The social and cultural relationships on all sides are explored with surprising honesty. It is pleasingly uncompromising at times. More interestingly, it also defies genre boundaries. Although it is mainly an SF novel, there are elements which could be fantasy, bits which are plainly horrific and all told as an investigation by a PI. So, on balance, I recommend it.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Blue War: A Punktown novel (Punktown)Blue War: A Punktown novel by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of the more underrated science fiction novels, managing to embed an interesting discussion on the meaning of identity in a framework blending SF with horror.…

View all my reviews

By the Sword by F. Paul Wilson

As the explanation for an idiom, let us allow for the world to be an impossibly large place. To lose one object or one person would present you with a haystack worthy of the challenge to find the needle. Even a city the size of New York — a mere 8,274,527 people occupying just under 305 square miles if you believe wikipedia — would make life difficult. So it is that F. Paul Wilson pitches Repairman Jack back into the continuing saga of the Adversary Cycle. This time continuing on from Bloodline, we come into By the Sword (Gauntlet Press, 2008), the title containing a big hint about the number of people likely to die. He still has the need to search for Dawn on his mind and, as is the custom, he picks up a commission to look for a sword. So, as Randy Jackson would say, “Keeping it real, dog!” this would present a serious challenge to the combined forces of New York’s finest, the FBI, Homeland Security and the CIA to deal with the Threat from Beyond. But there is one consistent thread in all Repairman stories. There’s no such thing as coincidence. Put another way, this brings us to the Moirae.

In classical mythology, there were three women who worked together as The Fates. The first, Clotho, spun the thread of life. The second, Lachesis, measured the thread out to each person as their span of life. The third, Atropos, cut the thread of life when it was due to end. The point of this trinity is that fate is an inexorable mistress. They know the span allotted to you and never hesitate to bring death as closure when time has expired. Yet, unlike the word “destiny” which has quite positive connotations, the Fates were seen as remorseless or relentless. This is quite different from the notion of destiny which has more positive connotations. People are always far more positive and hopeful as they work towards their end. Even if they believe their destiny is to die, it is associated with the idea of heroism and this can inspire both actors and their observers to respect the individual. Fate, on the other hand, has a bad reputation. It can play us false and lead us to destruction.

As we have seen from the prequel Secret Histories, Jack’s feet were firmly planted on the path from his youngest years. He is, if you like, genetically predisposed to be a player in the final battles. Thus, as a young man, he is already surrounded by the characters who will play a major role in his adult life. This brings me to a metaphorical moment. A watch has a face with hands or a digital display to mark the passage of time. The mechanism for analogue timepieces has a balance wheel, which as its name suggests, keeps an even balance between equally matched but opposing forces. There is a gear train to produce the driving force for the whole plot of time to be delivered to that point when the spring must be rewound to restart the movement and, for Jack, there must be escapement (for now). Time marches on inexorably and, in a sense, we are forced to go along with it (or perhaps that should be the other way round since it was the humans who thought up the concept of time in the first place). Whatever! We know Jack has to survive until we get to Nightworld, the last book in the cycle. Thus, there is no suspense. No matter what happens, Jack has to survive.

This leaves him and the readers as rather passive observers to the passage of time. Everything that should happen to advance the plot does happen. Dawn and the sword move round like pawns on the writer’s board. Jack gets all the other major factions to fight each other and, for the most part, lets them get on with the serious business of killing each other. It’s all a little perfunctory, including the resolution of what happens to the sword. As Donald Rumsfeld, who was Secretary of Defence in the US, once famously said, “Stuff happens, and it’s untidy. . .” Except that here it’s all a bit too tidy. The mechanism has to deliver us to a particular point so the next volume can carry on, and that’s what it does. It does so as entertainingly as it can. Wilson’s prose is as clean cut as ever, the plot develops at a good pace with some nice quirks, but I feel my interest waning a little. To paraphrase Macbeth, “. . .to be well done, it were better done quickly.” I want to see the whole Adversary Cycle all over. The oeuvre is beautifully envisioned and it deserves to be finished. I just wish I could skim through the rest now and see how all the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed. Then I could walk away contented.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

galaxy blues by Allen Steele

June 30, 2009 1 comment

There are times when life as described on the pages of novels is just too damned convenient. I know fortuitous accidents often do make their contributions to the real world, but it has become a somewhat tiresome cliché to point them out. Luck does not sit comfortably alongside the need to present yourself to the world as a competent planner. Although there is no doubt we do all need a little luck sometimes, it should never do more than add to the expected success. Building a plan around the need for luck is a recipe for disaster.

So, in galaxy blues by Allen Steele, we’re back in the Coyote universe with a manifestly successful businessman who is planning what he hopes will be his greatest business coup. He has a ship and all but one crew member. And wouldn’t you know it, one just happens to drop into his lap. Worse, he is a turncoat and may have betrayed his brother so perhaps shouldn’t even get on to the shortlist.

But, hey, we need to get this particular set of people on the ship for this story to work so less of the carping.

Have you noticed how the two leading characters who are going to end up together often seem to hate each other at first sight?

But there are compensations. It’s a mildly amusing twist on the trade goods for natives (usually worthless geegaws) that the ship is full of top grade cannabis. As good a case for the legalisation of this “herb” as I’ve seen for a while. That the natives are also running a scam is somewhat thrown away. Although the politics a inter-species trade is perhaps slightly less exciting than the space travel to get there, there is more to be made of the philosophical factionalism of the aliens that is dreamt of in this author’s heaven and earth.

Nevertheless, the opening section of the book is diverting and Steele is a readable author so I’m well past the halfway line before I start to lose interest. Now you have to see this vastly superior set of aliens. They have high technology coming out of their ears and any other orifices available. They’ve been aware of this approaching black hole for yonks (that’s a really long time for those of you who don’t speak Brit). Their top scientific brains have been collecting data, trying to devise a way of stopping it. So they lay this silly trap to recruit these technologically challenged Earthlings to go and plant a recording device in the back hole’s path.

Any self-respecting alien with an abacus would have known decades ago where this black hole was going to hit next. The affected planetary system has been evacuating its citizens for some time. Anyone could have gone to a suitable planet or moon and left a recording device without the slightest risk. But, for the purpose of this story, this ship of con artists from earth are shanghaied to do it when they could all be killed. Even more ironic is that the aliens were convinced the earthlings would wreck their experiment by simply throwing the device out of the ship and making a run for it to save their skins. We earthlings impressed the shit out of these aliens (assuming they do produce shit, of course) by actually doing the job properly and almost getting killed in the process.

It’s completely brainless and lacks any kind of page-turning tension. From the outset, we all know that the earthlings will be successful and get back to Earth (or Coyote as the case may be). So the whole book stumbles vacantly to an end and we wonder why we bothered to keep reading. The nice asides like the telepathy merchant who stays drunk to avoid the misery of having to hear his fellow earthlings’ thoughts and the thematic rerun of Pierson’s Puppeteers from Larry Niven’s universe cannot prevent the work from failing retain interest after the halfway mark.

For reviews of other novels by Allen Steele, see:
Coyote Horizon
V-S Day.
There’s also a novella Angel of Europa.

Jacket artwork by John Harris.

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