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Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds

November 19, 2010 5 comments

Some people just got “it”. Every age has its Clara Bows and, no matter what the activity, they inspire fannish behaviour from respectful admirers. The “it” can blaze from a well-established celebrity or be obvious in a newcomer. In the theatre over the decades, I recall seeing several walk-ons who attracted every eye without having to drop the spear — thirty years and more on, they are among those Brits who pop up in Hollywood films and steal the show. Being in the physical presence of such people is how you imagine moths must feel when they see a light. Obviously, this is not always possible but, even seen through a screen or read in a book, the high-powered wattage of attraction is still apparent.

For me, Alastair Reynolds is one of the writers who have “it”. His knack of storytelling leaps off the page and, in the niche of science fiction, manages to speak to the world. In the spirit of KISS, which usually translates as an instruction to keep everything simple, Reynolds has an uncomplicated prose style belying a very sophisticated narrative sense. He tells stories rather like a fisherman who casts out his hook on a float and waits for you to take a bite. Then he reels you in. So, starting Deep Navigation (NESFA Press, February, 2010) “Nunivak Snowflakes” gives us an everyday tale of eskimo folk who get messages hidden inside fish. This is an unshakable kind of narrative hook. You just have to keep on reading to find out who could possibly be using dead fish to communicate. It’s the same in “Monkey Suit”. This is an elegant ghost in the machine, body-mind dualism story. Let’s suppose an armoured exoskeleton suit has an artificial intelligence that has learned to anticipate its long-time occupant in both thought and action, and that occupant has physically died inside the suit. Is overwriting the suit’s software also a kind of murder by wiping the last vestiges of the man from the system. It’s at times like this that thinking engineers confront unexpected depths in their work.

“The Fixation” reminded me of the worst-case suggestions that the Large Hadron Collider might create a black hole and so cause the destruction of the Earth. At one point in the story, an observer asks the scientist responsible for the experiment, how she can be sure the maths is correct and there is no danger. This challenges the scientist in an area of faith. If the scientist did not believe in her ability to produce mathematical proofs, how could she consider the verifying experiment safe? All science is a balance of risks as we search for evidence in support of each given hypothesis. In this case, the chances of anything going wrong are vanishingly small and, anyway, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over. “Feeling Rejected” is a spoof published in Nature and, like all jokes written for scientists, it’s mercifully short.

“Fury” takes us back to ideas similar to “Monkey Suit” as the Emperor’s chief security officer investigates a failed assassination attempt. As in every good detective story, our investigator must follow the trail of breadcrumbs to identify not only the “who” but also the “why”. In this instance, it also brings us into an interesting discussion of what loyalty means. Some philosophers prefer the idea that loyalty is strictly personal, whereas others argue for the proposition that it’s perfectly possible to be loyal to a cause or, even, to a thing if it’s important enough. No matter which school is correct, we are left with the hope that loyalty will never become obsolete, even in the far reaches of a galaxy-encompassing culture.

“Stroboscopic” is an inverted detective story in that we see a “crime” committed in the first pages which gives a game player the chance to cheat and outperform competitors in the forthcoming demonstration of a new game. All the facts are laid out in plain sight for the readers to see. We just have to understand the significance of those first pages when we get to the crunch at the end and the right answer is a matter of life and death. Structurally this is a really pleasing story, playing fair with the reader at every point. It’s good to see narrative techniques in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman recycled so effectively in our century.

“The Receivers” is a big change of style to an alternate history in which we explore exactly what one might “hear” when using acoustic location systems — the forerunner of radar for detecting incoming bombers and fighters. This is real science prayed in aid of supernatural purposes. The result is a tragedy with a muted epic quality. How satisfying it would be if real artists could draw inspiration from the music of the spheres. In such a case, we would move beyond the technology as the receiver and recognise the artist as being inspired by clairaudience.

“Byrd Land Six” is the classic trope of a scientific experiment getting you into a real mess, analysing what has gone wrong, and then finding the only way out. In a sense, it’s a rerun of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” except we substitute technology for The Thing Form Another World. It’s a really enjoyable romp through all the weird science of a quantum entanglement Franson link between here and there, but instantaneously. I neither know nor care whether such an extension of our beloved bluetooth technology would be possible at the quantum level, but this is irrelevant as everything gets really connected and produces great adventure. Continuing in the same vein, we move into space pirate mode with “The Star Surgeon”s Apprentice” in which everything including lobotomised human slaves, and a captured alien and her baby get thrown into an over-the-top mix. “On the Oodnadatta” is a clever story speculating on what might be done with cryogenically frozen bodies in a distant future where there’s a shortage of physical labour. This is definitely an argument for unionisation. “Fresco” is a poignant short short as civilisations prove to be like Mayflies.

“Viper” overflows with ideas on future prisons. More importantly, it asks how we might test career criminals to determine whether they are sufficiently safe to be released on probation. Although it’s contrived to achieve the desired effect, it captures the horror of loss and consequent desire for private revenge, albeit wrapped in the justification of pubic protection. “Soiree” is a story of sacrifice in a noble cause. It challenges the hypocrites who support organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature to say what they would give up for the preservation of a dangerous species on the verge of complete extinction. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a dark sfnal idea, presumably inspired by the Angel of the North. The war in the heavens occasionally spills over into this future world and has, in this instance, found a guardian — although, in reality, there would be little she could do if the wrong side has won. Finally, “Tiger, Burning” is one of these pieces, packed to the rafters with fascinating ideas, delivered in the trope of a criminal investigation. The resolution is somewhat perfunctory but we forgive Reynolds because the setting for the story is so rich.

All-in-all, this is a highly satisfying collection for the thinking reader who enjoys science fiction as much for its ideas as for the “adventure” and “wonder”.

For a review of two novellas from Subterranean Press, see The Six Directions of Space and Troika, and the start of a new trilogy Blue Remembered Earth.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

November 16, 2010 2 comments

“Hold very tight please,” advise Flanders & Swann as we climb to the top of the Clapham Omnibus in their song “Transport of Delight” — and off we go in a not-so-little something for everyone who likes to travel through science fiction under the editorial direction of Gardner Dozois. The bus starts rolling with “Utrusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson in which a now godlike being looks back at her humble origin and reviews what she told herself about her life. The love she unexpectedly came to share with Erasmus carries them forward as they distance themselves from this universe, shedding other social relationships much like a snake sheds its skin as it grows. The irony is that she becomes this higher being because of the borderline personality disorder induced by her early life in this trailer park. “A Story With Beans” by Stephen Gould also deals with the forces that shape a young couple’s destiny while “Under the Shouting Sky” by Karl Bunker speculates on what price anyone would be willing to pay to preserve knowledge and the possibility of understanding. Thematically, this idea of balancing cost against benefit continues with “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance” by John Kessel. The authority implicit in hegemony often depends on simple cultural icons. If only you could steal the prime icon. . . Holding the icon for ransom and resisting the use of power to recover it, would introduce a sense of vulnerability and puncture the myth of the hegemon’s invincibility. But how many lives would you sacrifice in this “means” and “ends” war of attrition?

In “Black Swan”, Bruce Sterling has fun thinking about alternate versions of Europe while rerunning a version of the Sliders trope. “Crimes and Glory” is one of the Jackaroo stories by Paul McCauley (there are six of them now). When an alien offers you a bargain, we’re in the old stamping ground of the primitive who does not have the knowledge and experience to recognise a gun for what it is. As Earthlings, we don’t have the technology to explore the limitations or liabilities of accepting the deal as offered. How are we to know their motives? This story has us rattling the bars on the cage in a highly readable police procedural and consequent pursuit. “The Seventh Fall” by Alexander Irvine is not unlike Brin’s Postman and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where a survivor performs Shakespeare and Homer to those he encounters in return for food and shelter, all the while trying to reconstruct a copy of Hamlet. It’s a bit derivative but emotionally powerful. “Butterfly Bomb” by Dominic Green is a really elegant story about how, in a relationship built on love and respect, one might negotiate with a bomb to persuade it not to self-replicate and kill more people. Having read similar stories before, I can say this is my all-time favourite version of the trope. A real delight. “Infinities” by Vandana Singh is slightly outside my comfort zone because I have no competence in maths. I recall “Message Found in a Copy of Flatland” by Rudy Rucker as similar in theme. But no matter how obscure the concepts, in using the relationship between the two men as they age, we have a powerful story about the futile but continuing strife between the Hindus and Moslems in India. In this case, friendship transcends the more usual reality.

“Things Undone” by John Barnes is an unexpectedly good time paradox story. All authors flirt with the changes-in-the-past-rippling-forward thing (and some get them published), but this is the first time I can remember anyone having this kind of choice in the process. It’s genuinely innovative and pleasing to see how there’s an element of conservation in the mutability of time so that, sooner or later, the same people will come to the right place to do the things they ought to have done or ought to do. “On the Human Plan” by Jay Lake is a striking story of stasis. In the end of time, perhaps we will just endure in whatever body we have made for ourselves and deny death an entry to our realm — we are, after all, no longer really living anyway. “The Island” by Peter Watts is equally fascinating in that humans alternate short bursts of activity followed by long periods of suspended animation and so mirror Robert Wilson’s method of transcending time. The relationship between the original human crew, the computer and the newly born is carefully thought through, while the intelligent Dyson sphere reminds me of Hoyle’s cloud. The whole thing is stitched together by the supposed continuing need to provide a transport infrastructure — left hanging in an absurd way Douglas Adams would have approved. Not surprisingly, this won the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette.

“The Integrity of the Chain” by Lavie Tidhar is a haunting tale of life in a future Vientiane where even the humble may dream of one day going into space. “Lion Walk” by Mary Roseblum tells a genre-bending tale of mystery and a variation on Crichton’s Jurassic Park. The ideas are interesting, but a better balance between detail on the investigation and the safari adventure content would improve it. “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” by Jo Walton is a “fun” alternate history where Nazi-style betrayal may become irresistible, even in a freedom-loving USA. “Three Leave of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee describes the possibility of surgery and chips as an intervention to control behaviour. All hyperactive or aggressive children should read this cautionary tale. It’s also pleasing to see this with an Indian setting. Too often short stories are Western-centric and Dozois is to be commended for diversifying locales throughout this anthology.

“Paradiso Lost” by Albert E. Cowdrey is a delightful military space opera with everything from the loopy general, the still-wet-behind-the-ears officers to the telepath and hostile aliens (if not initially, then certainly at the end). This is a terrific, page-turning read. “Blocked” by Jeff Ryman is a fascinating rumination of how Earth’s civilisation might respond to the prospect of alien’s arriving (or not, depending on how you view the world governments’ announcement). There would be urgent efforts to develop technology to escape from Earth or perhaps to escape into the Earth. The relationships across cultures and age are scrupulously honest. As for Singapore, I can’t think of a better place to build new shopping malls. When writing a story like “Solace” by James Van Pelt, a balance always has to be struck between real emotion and mere sentimentality. Here we have two threads juxtaposed in which both protagonists need to find the strength to continue life. That both arrive at satisfying resolutions without mawkishness is a testament to a good writer at work. “Act One” by Nancy Kress is quite the best gene terrorism story I’ve read in years — a real tour de force with characterisation to match the needs of the plot in every sense of the word. This should be written up into novel length so I can get to see Act Two and the Finale. With quality recognised, this was shortlisted for both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards 2010 for Best Novella. “Twilight of the Gods” by John C. Wright gives a completely unexpected spin to the generation ship trope with a hoary conflation of Tolkien and Wagner making magical music on the rings.

“Blood Dauber” by Ted Kosmatka and Michael Poore is a story that would work equally well in science fiction or horror. It grips you like a new breed of Hymenoptera with teeth and never lets you go. This is a genuinely outstanding story reminding me of George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings” — another of my all-time favourites. “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide” by Damien Broderick is a sensitive story about loss showing how shared emotions may reach out across time and space, propagating like a wave. It also nicely captures two levels of contempt: one the scientific community holds for the paranormal; the other the military has for everyone. “Hair” by Adam Roberts is a realpolitik story of how the world’s vested interests might react to a scientific innovation that removes any human’s reliance on eating as a source of nourishment. This is very clever, although the ending is a bit predictable. “Before My Last Breath” by Robert Reed captures a sense of wonder in posing the question and then answering what the aliens were doing — it’s a real tragedy that, even with interplanetary capability, a species may still be dogged by inappropriate belief systems.

“One of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Carnell is an old-fashioned gonzo science fiction tale of daring-do in an alternate world where Newton’s inspiration from the apple took an entirely different turn. This is remarkably entertaining and, if he could be persuaded to write this up into a novel, I would be queuing to buy it. Again the quality was recognised with its shortlisting for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette — he was also shortlisted for Best Graphic Story and proves himself a person of interest. “Edison’s Frankenstein” by Chris Roberson has us in an alternate world where electricity never has a chance to gain a foothold as against technology recovered from a polar expedition. The resulting culture is carefully Victorian and very steampunkish as a men struggle to find a place for themselves in a world increasingly dependent on automata to supply labour. This is great fun and faintly horrific in an impish way. “Erosion” by Ian Creasey is amusing as a science fiction story set on the coast not so far from where I used to live, showing how we must all make sacrifices if we are to leave our roots behind us. It manages to cram a lot of interesting ideas into a small space. Finally, “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (also shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novella) sees gene manipulation produce a new generation where, perhaps, time moves differently in this new India, allowing the chance to observe and detect cultural patterns. But, of course, nothing changes within a family where brothers may jealously squabble and then reconcile.

I have mentioned Maureen F McHugh’s Useless Things and “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith in the review of Eclipse Three, the latter story being shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette.

“Mongoose” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette was mentioned in my review of Lovecraft Unbound.

Looking back through this anthology, I am conscious of something remarkable. At this length, I can rarely remember encountering a group of stories without an obvious weak link. Frankly, having been a reader of science fiction for more than fifty years, I can safely say this is one of the very best (of the best) anthologies I can recall reading. There should be no excuse. If you enjoy science fiction, you should read this book!

For other anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection
Working as a tag team with George R R Martin, there are four anthologies:
Old Mars
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance,
Songs of Love and Death: All Original Tales of Star-crossed Love
Warriors.

This anthology is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Anthology.

 

Megamind

November 15, 2010 Leave a comment

A visual narrative is inherently limited by what can be shown on the screen. Except, of course, that many successful films gain their effect by what they do not show. It may be a camera angle to prevent the viewer from seeing the approach of the man with a knife, or it may simply be darkness which hides everything from view until someone gets the torch working again. But in the main, we have cameras that point at people, animals and scenery and, as by magic, capture the view and replay it on screen in our local cinemas. Which brings us to the animated traditions. These are not capable of recreating reality. Whether we’re dealing with stop-motion, hand-drawn or computer-generated, we are entering a world of fantasy where cute animals talk and what are presented as humans may defy the laws of physics. This enables them to respond to physical impacts like the sudden arrival of an anvil from a great height with the rubberised aplomb of cartoon characters. Done well, this is highly entertaining. Everything else comes over with varying degrees of boredom. All of which bring us to Megamind.

However you look at this film, it’s a dog’s breakfast. Let’s start at the beginning with its riff on the Superman mythos. Two alien cultures, both about to be destroyed, send their baby boys off to Earth. The Blue One arrives in a prison. The Other One lands literally in the lap of wealth and luxury. So this is not about secret identities. From the word go, the world knows we have two alien babies living among us but, for the purposes of the plot, we are supposed to ignore the consequential mass media interest in following the lives of the boys as they grow up. No paparazzi photographers lurk in trees around the jail to take candid shots of the Blue One playing with the hardened criminals. The warden sees no need to call in child welfare services. Instead, when they are of an age for education, they meet again in a village-style schoolhouse claiming to be for gifted children. Perhaps it’s reasonable to have this next to a prison where the guards and support staff live and send their children. But it’s definitely not a school with expensive facilities and children from the right families that wealthy parents would entrust with their extraterrestrial adopted son.

Anyway, no matter how they arrive in the school, the Other One shows his parents’ class-based contempt for the blue oik by routinely humiliating the poor thing. So much for being a paragon of virtue. Even the Smallville block of wood, Tom Welling, manages more empathy in his little finger than this monster. Not unnaturally, being reared by hardened criminals (and sex offenders) and denied self-respect by the peer group of school bullies, the Blue One decides the only career choice open to him is to be bad (and he vows to be good at it). This is supposed to trigger an enduring battle with the Blue One acting as the Other’s nemesis. Except, of course, no-one in Metro City has any illusions about who these two are. The Blue One’s prison upbringing and poor school performance were the talk of the celebrity gossip columns. He’s so routinely defeated that no-one can have any fear of him, the majority viewing him with ridicule and contempt. Indeed, when the Other One has an existential moment, he recognises a life of total boredom (as have most of those still awake in the cinema). There’s no pleasure or satisfaction in protecting Metro City because, without a real villain like Heath Ledger’s Joker, there’s no credible threat to Metro City. Since he cannot commit suicide, the Other One fakes his own death and becomes a hermit. He’s not, you will understand, a people person. This is not a retreat into a quiet alternative identity, writing stories for a local newspaper. He’s self-absorbed and self-deluding in believing he can be a singer with prospects (even though he’s tricked everyone into thinking he’s dead — no, wait, faking your death is the best way to get a best seller).

Deprived of an opponent, the Blue One then discovers he has no interest in being bad for its own sake. The damage to Metro City is through neglect, i.e. the people respond to his hands-off rule by allowing the place to fill up with rubbish and get rundown. By this point, I was also feeling very rundown. The device of the Blue One injecting the Other One’s DNA into a human and producing another person with superpowers is a remarkable piece of science fiction. This is presumably why many governments want to restrict stem cell cloning, afraid everyone injected will suddenly turn back into babies. The use of Marlon Brando’s image as the teacher went on too long and the fight at the end was incomprehensible. How can a weedy alien who has thus-far only shown some brain power and an inability to pronounce everyday words like “Hello”, suddenly demonstrate physical superpowers? Have I missed something while struggling to stay awake? Rather than just creating an image, does this watch as a cloaking device also endow the wearer with the power of flight and the ability to cut a bus in half by standing in front of it? I was baffled and annoyed. It seems the writers are only interested in a random sequence of images for effect and not any kind of logic.

So, overall, this was a snooze fest of the first magnitude. The dialogue lacks wit. The script lacks invention. The characters were, with the possible exception of Tina Frey’s spunky girl reporter, all two-dimensional (despite paying the extra for 3D — yet another waste of money) and completely lacking in credibility. Not one of the characters emerges with any credit. The stand-in hero voiced by Jonah Hill, is a frat boy gone bad, the Other One voiced by Brad Pitt, is happiest on his own with a drink in his belly and a guitar in his hands, while the Blue One voiced by Will Ferrell, and his Minion voiced by David Cross, are shallow, toothless wonders.

If your children insist on seeing this film, send them in on their own with plenty of stuff to nibble. Exposing yourself to films like this as an adult may be bad for your health.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

In approaching this book, I’m reminded of decades of musical interventions where jazz and other musicians have taken pieces of classical music or well-known tunes, and variously mangled them, depending on your point of view. Indeed, the Classical Jazz Quartet is currently mining the same field ploughed by the Swingle Singers forty-something years ago, while people like Yngwie Malmsteen write their own orchestral concertos for electric guitar. Similarly, the idea of riffing on old literary favourites is captured in the increasingly contentious practice where “mashup” meets plagiarism. This year, you only have to think Helene Hegemann (as, of course, you all do) or Kaavya Viswanathan, who has just begun work with Sullivan & Cromwell, a top firm of attorneys — kinda ironic, huh!?! — to see the problem emerge into the full glare of the light. With the internet now making it possible to lay your hands on a wealth of content, it’s very difficult not to give into the temptation of an odd phrase here and there.

Now this is not to say there’s even the slightest hint of plagiarism about The Fuller Memorandum (apart from mentioning the phrase “here be dragons” twice which is the title of one of Anthony Price’s books). Indeed, for all its advertised homage to Anthony Price, I’m able to report there’s almost nothing even remotely like a David Audley book on display.

At this point, I admit to a prejudice. I used to be a collector and was the proud possessor of a complete set of Price first editions. He was a quite remarkable author. One who does not deserve to have been lost in the mists of time. The beauty of the books is the blend of history and two puzzles to be solved. There’s always a historical mystery, beautifully researched, and the solution of that mystery leads to the resolution of the contemporary mystery and the unmasking of the criminal, spy or terrorist. As a historian, the “hero” Audley thinks his way through both puzzles and, with the help of more active helpers, catches the bad guys. For anyone who wants an intellectual but exciting adventure story, you can’t do better than Price, particularly the early books. As he got older, there was a slightly wooden quality to the writing. But there are some great books to savour.

So Charles Stross, having been inspired by Len Deighton and Ian Fleming in the first two Laundry books, now claims Price. You need not worry. This is the same as Hollywood asserting a film is based on a true story, i.e. the filmmakers dramatise reality and so turn it into something different. This is the usual Stross first-person narrative where the now familiar Bob Howard struggles his way through the morass of problems until he emerges battered but victorious (and, according to Stross in June, he’s pitching another outing). First, the good news. This is way better than the second in the series, The Jennifer Morgue, which kept the Bond theme going far too long. The Fuller Memorandum succeeds in no small part because, although there are the texts of some historical documents included, Stross is not interested in copying the style or tropes of his inspirational source. Whereas even the living dead have either read a Bond book or seen one of the films, I’m probably one of a dying breed who could give you chapter and verse on Audley. Without Price fans to appease by including this favourite element or that, Stross could be unconstrained and just write a good Lovecraftian romp.

It has been interesting to watch Bob Howard’s development from The Atrocity Archives onwards. He’s losing his naive geekiness and becoming increasingly competent. In this outing, from the moment he misjudges the extent of the problem in RAF Cosford and inadvertently kills someone who proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the end where there are rather too many dead around for it to matter any more, we can see a man growing more comfortable in his ability to take on the dark forces and win.

And all is told with considerable wit. I can hear Stross cackling as, like one of these slightly manic entertainers who bend balloons into funny shapes, he takes ordinary sentences and wraps them round each other to make the entrails of something diabolically amusing — or which might represent a human sacrifice and so admit a power from beyond. Although there are moments where there’s an odd repetitiveness about the writing, it’s high pulp and not ashamed of it. This is not a book you sit down to read as brain food. It’s not intended to be anything other than great fun. In this it succeeds admirably and represents the best book Stross has published since Halting State. That our first-person hero can assert what others are doing at the same time in different parts of London just adds to the madcap feel of the whole thing. So once we have done our stretching exercises, it ambles along happily for the first half and then runs frantically to get to the end. There are no real mysteries in the Price style to solve except to wonder how Stross manages to stay so amusing so long.

Definitely recommended for those who like Lovecraftian fiction with a subversive attitude.

For more reviews of Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
Neptune Brood
Wireless
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens.

This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

 

House of Windows by John Langan

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Having read my first draft of this post to the end, I realised that, instead of a postscript, I need an antescript. From this, you will understand this is not a standard review. When thinking about books, it’s customary to discuss them more directly, even when what you write is literary criticism. This piece is rather oblique and, for those of you who worry about such things, it contains no spoilers. Instead and, perhaps, somewhat patronisingly, I have described what the book made me think about and vaguely projected this as if I assume it to be what the author was thinking about while writing.

For those of you who prefer reading posts on sites like this just to find out whether the reviewer thinks the book is any good, you can save yourself the trouble of reading the the end. As first novels go, this is very good. For those who want to know why, read on

The frame is a old-fashioned “club story” — in which one member of a club of adventurers pulls another to one side, offers a brandy and a cigar, and tells a story. This is very Victorian or Edwardian in approach and, in a perverse way, sets the tone of what can only be thought of as a postmodernist ghost story. This requires some explanation. Abandoning strict theory, let’s call the twentieth century a “modern” age in which we rejected the Victorian era that went before it and sought to progress to a new set of cultural ideas through our literature, art, theatre and music. As technology improved, we diversified away from the printing press, and into the new distribution systems of radio, television and now the internet. In the ways we have tried to use these different methods of communication, we were searching for new meanings. Early in the century, we had the harrowing experience of WWI. Millions of lives were thrown away in sterile conflict. We hoped there was a better way of communicating with each other to prevent such a catastrophe from repeating itself. Yet, no matter what political stance we took — whether the appeasement of the British or the isolationism of the US — future war was not to be denied.

This disturbed our certainties. The Victorians had prided themselves on the strength of their beliefs. They were invincible in trade and combat. After two world wars, we recognised that too high a price was paid for such certainty. We moved away from omniscience, and embraced relativism and subjectivism. Whereas the Victorian ghost was a practical manifestation of evil, intent upon causing harm and, even, threatening the Empire, the modernist ghost was a symptom of our own psychological insecurities. We were haunted as much by ourselves as by spirits or creatures from another dimension.

In a new century, we now move beyond modernism and look for a more coherent view of ourselves in the world. To do this, we use a kind of archaeology of the past, interweaving the fiction and ideas from earlier generations into our current discourse, allowing the past to illuminate the present. In writing this, I am borrowing the ideas of Michel Foucault and others who have helped crystalise the process, enriching our understanding of what we now think and believe by reinterpreting what we know, or do not know, of the past.

What’s so particularly fascinating about House of Windows (published by Night Shade Books, 2009) is that it becomes a form of postmodernist parable in which the two key characters mine the past for information in the hope it will explain what is happening to them. In this archaeological endeavour, they come equipped with the right skills. They are both academics, specialising in literature and, by implication, the postmodernist theories of literary interpretation and semiotics. So when they wish to explore the history of the house, they will search all records, look for contemporary witnesses from whom to collect impressions, and so on. They will interrogate the past. If they wish to know more about how the husband’s son died, they will reconstruct the past through maps, witness statements and physical re-enactment with models. There’s no tool or metaphorical device they will not use to progress their understanding of what happened and is happening.

There are supernatural events. As hopefully objective observers, they do not doubt the evidence of their senses, but this triggers anxiety about how their mental state will be perceived. It’s easy to predict how others will respond should they discuss their experiences. So they remain largely silent until the disclosures made through this novel. That they are willing to suspend disbelief is a sign of their scholarship. They become energised, determined to analyse, and so take control of events. They believe they will resolve matters satisfactorily once they have applied the scientific method, postulating a hypothesis, seeking evidence, interpreting it and reasoning to a conclusion. Such is the hubris of the postmodernist. That this may be genuinely supernatural and so not explicable in human terms, is not something they consider a barrier to eventual understanding.

Thematically, the main interest is in parental relationships. In theory, each generation socialises the next and fashions a new set of people capable of carrying the family fortune and the nation’s wealth to higher levels of prosperity. Except, of course, parental relationships can be seriously dysfunctional and the values that are handed down prove rather different from those intended. So we are invited to judge parents as they relate to their children. Where the focus is on a father, we are asked whether the behaviour of the natural mother and, in one case, the younger stepmother and wife, is a positive force. This is not to say that children are always the victims of their parents. A father may project his own dreams on to his son, hoping he will take up the torch and run further with it. Within reasonable limits, this is a constructive approach to parenting. But a more obsessional academic father may not to see his son’s dyslexia for what it is. When you want so desperately for your son to become a scholar, you are more likely predisposed to see the son’s difficulty in reading as defiance.

So when, for a host of sins, both real and imagined, the father curses the son and casts him out, what effect does this have? Remember, we are dealing with the supernatural here, so we are not restricting effect to physical separation or psychological torment. When the son dies without ever reconciling with the father, there will be guilt for the father to deal with and what from the spirit of the son? Indeed, the real question is what a dead son could do from beyond the grave. As a spirit, could he even find his way home without a map?

This is not a Victorian style of ghost story as in “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, nor do we meet a ghost such as Hodgson’s Carnacki might have found. This is not M. R. James nor anything cosmic with tentacles along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft (although there’s a hint the house might be a little like the Witch House). Instead, the house is a metaphor for memories and how we see them. If we were standing inside our heads, think of the eyes as like windows through which we can look out across our memories. At any moment, we might “see” a memory of our children, or a place we visited as a child, or something we imagine. Because we are fallible, memories are rearranged, we reinterpret them and some we forget. So the house might seem to be confusing, perhaps generating the suggestion of different rooms or doors, or being able to access different spaces. If you prefer not to accept this metaphor, think of the “slow glass” stories by Bob Shaw through which we might perceive the past. Why the past? Because that’s the source of the emotions of loss and grief and guilt (although not necessarily in that order).

House of Windows is not a horror story in the traditional sense. It’s far too cerebral and dispassionate for that. Rather it’s a story about relationships which has a supernatural dimension. As first novels go, it succeeds in provoking considerable thought. This is a good thing. I believe this is a harbinger of future greatness. In terms of style, I was reminded of Peter Straub. Langan is not yet that good but, if he strikes a better balance between the ideas and the narrative, I think he might get to that level.

For a review of John Langan’s first collection of short stories, see Mr Gaunt and other uneasy encounters.

Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham

November 9, 2010 1 comment

I first “met” Daniel Abraham in Hunter’s Run (a collaboration with George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois), and then heard nothing of him until “The Pretender’s Tourney” turned up in Eclipse Three. That was a sufficient recommendation, so here I am holding a copy of Leviathan Wept (Subterranean Press, 2010).

“The Cambist and Lord Iron” (2007), a finalist for both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, starts us off on a very positive note. This is everything that can be good about a short story. It takes just enough time to consider elegant ideas and then moves on before we have a chance to grow bored. Too often, those who write more philosophically-inclined stories tend to grow excited by their own cleverness and forget the need to invest in believable characters, create credible situations, and move the narrative along. The author is, after all, supposed to be in the business of delivering entertainment rather than producing some dry academic article. But here we have three increasingly profound questions asked and answered with wit and intelligence — a rare combination of edification and delight.

I confess to initial confusion at “Flat Diane” (2004) — a finalist for the Nebula Award. It’s such a radical shift in style and tone from the first story that I was slow to pick up on exactly what was happening. But, once the penny dropped, it reveals itself as a wonderfully dark story in which something genuinely innocent and well-intentioned becomes the source of distress.

In “The Best Monkey” (2009), a new dystopia may dawn in which technology adjusts the human brain so that we evaluate each other with a different sense of perspective. In the same vein, “Exclusion” (2001) also has technology enabling a practical ending of social relationships. This is an author using metaphors to discuss matters of more universal interest. As a group, we can send someone to Coventry, i.e. deliberately ignore their physical presence. As individuals, we can block those we dislike from access to our profiles and conversations on social sites. The question Abraham poses is whether these casual terminations of electronic relationships devalue real human relationships. If in an idle moment of pique we can exclude people from our social circle, should there be a price to pay? Our “hero” in this story experiences a kind of redemption through being forced to acknowledge that, hard though it may be, it’s usually better to talk to people.

“The Support Technician Tango” (2007) is an exercise in magic realism cloaked in wry amusement. The McGuffin is a book that, with malicious glee, offers snippets of advice to readers who pick it up and read pages at random. Somewhat in the same spirit as “Blued Moon” by Connie Willis, the usual laws of social cause and effect are subtly disturbed so that, as electrons and protons may be pushed into different orbits at an atomic level, so people are manipulated and become slightly different beings. It’s rare to find contemporary humour that crosses cultural boundaries and retains its freshness.

“A Hunter in Arin-Qin” (2010) is a nicely realised fantasy in which a hunter must decide her role in society and, perhaps more importantly, understand her duty as a mother. “Leviathan Wept” (2004) has us flirting with a slightly different kind of “Screwfly Solution” — a classic short story by Raccoona Sheldon, née Alice Sheldon. It’s a depressing metaview explaining one possible genesis of the current hostilities between Christianity and Islam, and showing how it may develop. “As Sweet” (2001) also takes us into dangerous authorial territory with a story about a teacher seen through the prism of her subject specialism — in this case, Shakespeare. Fortunately, Abraham avoids the trap of simply indulging his own interest in English Literature, and creates something close to a universal story about love (both in and out of marriage).

“The Curandero and the Swede” (2009) is a delightful, rambling conversation piece, albeit primarily a monologue, in which we range over the history of Route 666 in Arizona and how the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination affected one of the many men hearing it. It reminded me of two virtues. As a boy growing up before televisions routinely graced our homes, my family and friends relied on each other for entertainment. Conversation was not so much an art as a necessity to avoid boredom (although the radio and our family’s collection of 78s was a good substitute). Secondly, we become individuals through the stories we tell about ourselves and those important to us. These often repeated epics define us in the eyes of others, and more importantly, pass on oral histories through the generations. I vividly remember the stories my grandmother used to tell of life in late Victorian and early Edwardian England. Abraham makes me regret I will never pass them on to anyone else.

I began this review with the words, “I first met. . .” because, in reading these stories, I feel as if I have just enjoyed a long conversation with Daniel Abraham. Words on a page are spoken words written down. You can get a sense of the person behind the words, hear them as if spoken. This has been a special few hours and, for anyone out there who enjoys thinking while reading, this book is for you: an eclectic, challenging and, perhaps most of all, fun collection of stories.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

The Taborin Scale by Lucius Shepard

November 8, 2010 1 comment

Those who have read some of these reviews will have detected my interest in semiotics which studies how meaning is communicated. The process depends on our ability to attribute meaning to signs. So, for example, a collector may hold an old coin in his hands and, by observing the surface detail and applying imagination, gain some insight into the time when people routinely handled the coin as money. Think of Sherlock Holmes who is able to make deductions about Watson’s father from a pocket-watch in The Sign of Four. There is meaning even in the slightest scratch if only you have eyes to see. For those who use symbols as a part of their faith, there can be multiple levels of meaning in, say, a statue of an elephant for someone who believes in Ganesh, to a cross for someone who believes in Christ. All such signifiers stand in the place of the originals. They trigger a recall of our stored beliefs and memories. Potentially, they give added meaning to our lives.

All this works well so long as you do not have access to the original. But imagine the loss of significance in the image of a godlike dragon, if you live in the shadow of its body. This is the position for inhabitants of Teocinte, a burgeoning city built on and around the body of the Dragon Griaule. Indeed, you can get an idea of how devalued the Dragon has become because, in a classic case of rampant capitalism, the city government has presold the Dragon’s skin and bones for traditional medicines, aphrodisiacs and more social purposes. Never has so much indignity been heaped upon this great Dragon, and all these scavenging merchants need now is evidence the dragon is dead. Obviously, it might not go down to well with the godlike animal if people start to dismantle it for parts while it is still alive.

Into Teocinte comes George Taborin, a coin dealer looking to buy new stock and planning on a little R&R while apart from his wife. In one transaction, he acquires a small scale, supposedly from a dragon. Shortly afterwards, he makes a deal with a prostitute, buying her services for the scale. However, just as handling a coin may evoke earlier times, so cleaning and rubbing the scale may also induce transport. In this case, George and the prostitute find themselves in an earlier time or, perhaps, a different dimension with no sign of Teocinte. Shortly after their arrival, a young Griaule herds them to pools fed by lazy streams where they are left to practice wilderness survival skills.

The fascination of this novella by Lucius Shepard is watching how George and the prostitute relate to each other. Both, it seems, have journeys to make as they adapt to differing circumstances. With Griaule as a catalyst, the best and worst of their characters come into view. When George encounters other abductees and rescues an abused young girl from them, a different balance comes into the relationship with the prostitute. Even in a wilderness, life can take on the mundane trappings of married life. Even in a mundane life, violence may be necessary in self-defence.

This work may see the end of the series of Dragon Griaule stories which would be a shame. It has been entrancing to watch the relationship between the Dragon and this world unfold. I hope for more.

A final word about the physical book. Quite often, books published by Subterranean Press are merely functional, but this has an additional design element with the front and end papers being a high gsm, coloured blue in honour of Griaule, and embossed in scale-like fashion. It’s a nice touch and doubly justifies the price — a good physical book to hold and excellent content to read.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

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