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The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

July 17, 2014 2 comments

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo is a reprint collection from Open Road Media, 2014. It was originally published in 1995 by Four Walls Eight Windows, and contains three novellas: “Victoria” (1991), “Hottentots” (1995) shortlisted for the 1996 Locus Award for Best Novella, and “Walt and Emily” (1993) published in two parts by Interzone and shortlisted for the 1994 Locus Award for Best Novella. Ignore the title: recognise that these novellas are not about great airships and mechanical inventiveness on a large scale. Rather this is steampunk as a state of mind. As emotionally repressed people, the Victorians feared they would lose control if their inner passions were allowed free rein. Think Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with a beast lurking inside the sack of skin, just waiting for the chance to take over and cause mayhem. Although it may make us feel more comfortable to restrict this historical trait to sexual behaviour and the threat of men being overtaken by their lust, the reality was a more general exuberance of greed and selfishness, cruelty and ambition — build an empire before tea, exploit it to the maximum possible, and then lose it all as night falls and the downtrodden refuse to accept the continuing abuse.

We start off in the same style as The Importance of Being a Nest by Wilde Birds with The Importance of Being a Newt. Yes, this is the story of Cosmo Cowperthwait who, having expunged Letchworth from the map (those of you interested in this phenomenon should read the excellent Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark), turned his attention to genetic engineering, hoping to satisfy his scientific curiosity by scaling up a newt to human size. Coincidentally, because books like this thrive on the comic effect generated by coincidences, he names his life-sized newt Victoria so, when the Queen of the same name goes walkabout, who else should the prime minister think of putting on the throne as a temporary replacement but the newt? As you will gather from these few sentences, this novella begins with a certain level of absurdity and then elevates the absurdity to previously undreamed of levels. It’s a masterpiece as our heroic inventor and genetic manipulatist ransacks London in search of the missing queen, fighting off temptation from an early suffragette whose self-appointed task is to relieve the suffering of women at the hands of men, only to end up where he started out albeit on a more private basis. Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-newt is as a sex toy for the rich that may, in the long term, prove to have a mind of her own. It’s simply an ironic commentary on the science that the combination of the animal and the human produces a more naturally sexual “animal” save that the human Queen Victoria is also discovering the diversity of sexual experience in an upmarket brothel. It seems newt genes and leadership pressures make sexual champions of us all. Although some of the humour is a little “obvious”, this remains great fun to read.

Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo

“Hottentots” is high quality satire that begins by skewering some of the prejudices that would have been prevalent in Victorian times. Fortunately, in our current post-racial times, we could not possibly hold such bigoted views or, if we did, we would carefully avoid expressing them in public. From our position of enlightenment, it gives us a chance to consider the basis of the beliefs that produced ideas of Übermensch, racial supremacism, eugenics, and so on. Our hero, Louis Agassiz, for want of a better way of describing the man, is a Swiss national working to establish a scientific centre in America. Apart from the intellectually elite to be found in places of learning such as Harvard, he considers America a dire melting pot in which miscegenation has run riot, irrecoverably polluting the gene pool and producing a potentially subhuman underclass of simple-minded people. You can therefore imagine his horror when his calm progress through life is disturbed by the arrival of a white man and his Hottentot bride who are intent upon recovering a lost fetish. There’s much tooing and froing as Agassiz attempts to reconcile his desire for a rational view of the world with the somewhat irrational occurrences around him. All this would have been more successful if the character of the man had been more likeable. But, from the outset, we’re shown how ghastly he is (by modern standards) and so have no sympathy for him at all.

“Walt and Emily” is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who are involved in that most Victorian of pastimes: the pursuit of the supernatural through the séance and other mechanisms for interacting with the spirit world. Emily’s brother, Austin, seeks a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He hopes the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy is the real deal and engages Walt and Emily to investigate the medium’s claims not only to communicate with the dead, but also transport the living into the spirit world. This involves us trying to reconcile science and the supernatural as the medium discharges ideoplasm from her breasts and transports our poets to an encounter with Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. There’s a general sense of fun as literary sensibilities are explored across the ages but, as with the other stories, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As in the other novellas, there’s also a sexual component to the story.

Although there are monsters on display, some more Lovecraftian than others, and there are some beautifully rendered mechanical ideas to satisfy those who want their steampunk to be about machines rather than ideas, full enjoyment of these three stories is somewhat dependent on being familiar with the more general Victorian writing styles and the particular literary flourishes of the poets in the last novella. This is not to say the modern reader will not enjoy these stories, but they will deliver more enjoyment if you have some background in the history and literature of Victorian times. With that caveat, I recommend The Steampunk Trilogy as producing a nicely balanced and occasionally humorous set of alternate histories for us to explore.

For a review of another work by Paul Di Filippo, see Cosmocopia.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro

June 17, 2014 3 comments

Her Husband'a Hands

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro (Prime Books, 2014) is a top class collection from one of the best prose stylists around. “Arvies” starts the ball rolling with a story presented as though it was an article in a periodical of some kind. The text is divided into sections with headings to act as signposts. It predicates a world in which money, power and control has been seized by the unborn foetuses. They are the living. If anyone has the misfortune to be born, they are considered dead and worth nothing unless a foetus buys the body. They see the dead as nothing more than convenient containers in which they can reside. But the foetus who is the protagonist of this story decides to do something wholly perverse. She decides to engineer the pregnancy of her current body so she can experience giving birth. Such notoriety! Such extraordinary abuse of convention! And then, of course, there’s the problem of what to do with the dead bodies. “Her Husband’s Hands” deals with a future in which we still fight wars and the technology has advanced to the point where, no matter how little survives of the body, it can be kept alive and wedded to the backed-up personality. Now all the spouses have to do is adjust to their new lives with the various body parts shipped back from the front (a confusing image, but you get what I mean). “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” is a nicely allegorical piece that offers an alternative to the dry tedium of modern life. At its best, fulfilling the routine produces the money necessary to support the lifestyle we’ve come to prefer. At its worst, the comforts of life disappear in moments of horrific madness. Perhaps it’s a single homicide or society rebels against the pacific boredom by engaging in acts of terrorism or a war. But suppose you could take a “place” and structure it so the inhabitants could enjoy nine days of abandon with the tenth giving the experience of mayhem and death. Would people opt for nine days of Paradise for the price of one day in Hell?

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

“Our Human” sees us back in the same universe inhabited by the redoubtable Andrea Cort with a story of a group of four outlaws who set off into the jungle on a nameless world to track down a human monster for whom there is a big reward. It elegantly forces the reader to consider what constitutes such a severe social sin to justify expulsion from their own race, and what might tempt other races to accept this criminal into their midst. For example, what might be rape to one race, might be normal biological activity to another. So is it easier for one race to overlook a sin because both the being and its behaviour is alien to them, or is there something more essentially forgiving about some races that they are prepared to see good even in the worst of beings and to offer the prospect of redemption? “Cherub” continues to challenge the reader by asking us to consider what a world would be like if every baby was born with a visual representation of their character riding on their backs. At first glance, the parents could see which sins their child would embrace. In a way, child and rider become a form of self-fulfilling prophesy, i.e. the rapist rapes, the murderer kills, and so on. This family produces a son with a cherub on his back. This proves to be something of an affront to the village which relentlessly takes advantage of what they see as weakness. Yet, over time, his constant turning of the other cheek wears down the hatred. When he marries, the village rallies round him and feels good about the moment. There’s just one potential fly in the ointment. What we take to be childhood innocence can be lost as the adult gains experience of the world. In the case of such a young man, that would indeed be a tragic loss.

“The Shallow End of the Pool” is also about the nature of relationships and the mechanisms we humans create to resolve our differences. If we’re lucky, we settle things without involving others, but there are times when we fight vicariously, finding and training champions to enter the lists on our behalf to joust unto the death. This story takes one of the champions as the POV and wonders what would happen if the other champion was a brother and those “fighting” were their parents. Don’t you just wish those parents could just kiss and make up? “Pieces of Ethan” is, quite simply, wonderful. It’s not just the precise meaning of the title which only becomes apparent about two-thirds of the way through. It’s the final pages in which the source of the affliction is revealed that has the biggest impact. By any standards, this is a remarkable story. And finally, “The Boy and the Box” invites us to consider what would go on in the mind of a boy who suddenly discovered how to put the world in a box. He could, of course, take individuals or things out of the box to play with whenever he wanted. But, after a time, that would all get rather boring. So what would he do then? The answer is rather fascinating, but not completely satisfying. Put all this together and Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories is the best collection so far this year.

For reviews of other books by Adam-Tryo Castro, see:
Emissaries From the Dead
The Third Claw of God

Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas

June 15, 2014 10 comments

worship_the_night_by_jeffrey_thomas__92518.1383025044.800.600worship-the-night-limited-1

Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013) sees yet another example of the prose that makes this author so readable. All the stories in this collection have the trademark crisp clarity and directness, with efficient plots that deliver the goods with the least effort. As an aside since this is a personal rather than a general observation, I lashed out and bought the limited edition. It proves to be a handsome production. Although I find the internal illustrations by Erin Wells not quite to my taste, I applaud the principle of publishing illustrations to illuminate and enhance the written word. I wish more publishers would follow this example.

The first two stories see us back in Hades and Punktown respectively. When an author has great high concepts on the run, it’s as well to plunge back periodically to renew interest. “The Lost Family” sees us with the “fallen” angel making her way out of what’s left of Hell. We met her and her bone gun in The Fall of Hades, and this free-standing story fits into the story of her climb through the Construct in the hope of reaching Freetown. While trying to work her way around rather larger demons, she finds the titular family and there’s a bonding moment as smaller demons try to crash the party. “Counterclockwise” has a simple and elegant story about a man who finds the Church, if that’s what it is, operating opposite his apartment block deeply annoying. When the local police show a complete lack of interest in dealing with prickly interspecies disputes, it’s left to our “hero” to decide what to do. “The Holy Bowl” takes us into the realm of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that most revered symbol of rationalism as it floats through the air, meatballs as eyes, balls, and anything else designed to be round. “Do you believe?” I exhort. Well, if not, this could be the fate awaiting you. “In Limbo” asks a different question. When everything’s going to shit around you, what’re you gonna do? Naturally, you hunker down for a few moments. Then you might cautiously explore the hallway only to run back into your apartment when the darkness seems to be closing in. The important thing is not to panic, or at least not to panic too much.

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

“About the Author” is nicely metafictional as we read the product description of the first book in a new zombie series followed by a few well-chosen words giving the author’s biography. Naturally, the scathing review by Jeffrey Thomas is only to be expected. Such books are usually a crapfest and, as in this case, their authors should be housed in the nearest loony bins, if only for their own safety — the rest can all go to Hell. “The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo” sees us firmly in Lovecraftian territory with a story of a gangster who thinks the Necronomicon can be a useful weapon in the right hands. With ambitions to become a senior figure in the ranks of the Mafia, he sets about killing a few of the smaller fish (human variety). But, like all good things, there must come an ending. “Children of the Dragon” sees us in Vietnam for a little research into cryptozoology except, at least in the early stages, this is more like the usual sex tourism trip. Then there comes that rather awkward moment when the precise nature of the word becomes important. “Is that Dragon or Dagon?” You never know. That r could be significant.

“The Sea of Flesh” is novella length and a rather beautiful, tender story in which a couple seeking escape from loveless marriages find each other and negotiate whether they might be able to find happiness together. One is an archetypical white guy who puts in the hours at a new bio company which grows human tissue. His wife has already found a new partner although she continues to live in the same house as him (sometimes openly visited by her lover). The other is Vietnamese with a violent husband who has long stopped loving her. In a sense, both have ties. His mother is in a private nursing home waiting to die. She has a daughter who left home to escape her father but has yet to find herself a place in the world outside. They meet because she’s a nurse in the home where his mother is dying. Overlaid this touching human story is a supernatural dream world. As the story progresses, we come to recognise four people interact in this world. At first, it seems to be just the man and his mother. But his potential partner’s daughter is also involved. The point of the story is to observe the way in which the dream world overlaps the human world, perhaps partly contaminating it or driven by it. If you think of the cycles of the moon and the way its unseen influence moves the tides that crash waves upon the shore, remember human bodies are largely made up of water. So there’s always the possibility the moon or other planets may move the tides of men and women. The result is an outstanding story to finish the collection. Put all this together and Worship the Night is a terrific collection of stories and well worth the money whether you buy the trade or the limited edition.

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

Irredeemable by Jason Sizemore

June 4, 2014 1 comment

irredeemable_cover800x600

Irredeemable by Jason Sizemore (Seventh Star Press, 2014) is a collection of eighteen stories, seven of which are original. “Caspar” strips down the setting to the bare minimum and has us view a meeting on a bench. Two men come together and one offers insights into the story of the three gifts offered by the three wise men to the baby Jesus. Perhaps this interpretation of the Bible is not quite standard, but it certainly comes with a point and indicates the probable direction of travel. “City Hall” wonders whether Human Resources Departments, particularly those in the public sector, could become slightly more innovative when it comes to terminating employees who are tardy, incompetent, or have serious halitosis. For too long, personnel mavens have relied on the tried and tested pink slip. But that’s altogether too impersonal. I’m reminded of Julius Caesar Act 4 which warns, “These many, then, shall die; their names are prick’d.” “Faithless” reminds us that sometimes there’s a double edge to a situation. Now it may well be that a serpent was responsible for tempting Adam and Eve with the unfortunate consequence of original sin. But there are times when, in the right hands, the serpent can have precisely the opposite effect.

“For the Sake of Pleasing” is as the title suggests, a rather pleasing science fantasy in which the rather powerful vampire-like creatures who run Earth like a cattle farm suddenly detect the imminent arrival of aliens. This could be very inconvenient, so Earth sends its Barbarella on a first-contact mission. In tone, this is rather like the Richard Jeperson stories by Kim Newman with psychic forces blending in with sixties and seventies spy and thriller film and television series like The Avengers and James Bond. Although I don’t think the ending is quite worked out properly, this is a standout story. “Hope” is a different form of science fiction context for an urban fantasy story of hunter and hunted at the end of the world. Although mildly explicit, it builds to a pleasingly wry conclusion. “Ice Cream at the Falls” sees us back to the straight horror with an artist who has a mission to impose his point of view on the world. With his latest work on display, he suddenly discovers the sins of the father can pass down to the son. “Little Digits” is a short short story which inverts expectation lickety-split or should that be splat? “Mr Templar” takes us back to the sfnal world with a story of androids surviving a nuclear holocaust. They wander the surface of Earth searching for fuel to keep themselves functional. At times, out of desperation, they scavenge the fallen for spare parts and residual fuel. It’s a tough life made more pressing by the discovery of a spacecraft in orbit. Perhaps if they could reach that ship there would be salvation. Or perhaps an entirely different fate awaits them.

Jason Sizemore

Jason Sizemore

“Plug and Play” is a faintly humorous spin on the drug mule trope as our human hero has what some might think a psychotic break on the space station where he works and discovers it can be a better life to work for, rather than against, android interests. I don’t think the plot is completely coherent. Why he should want to go back to his old job and, more to the point, why the androids would want such a troublesome human back needs to be explained. Nevertheless, as written, it maintains interest to the end. “Pranks” is an unsuccessful attempt to run the biter-bit trope. Unfortunately, it telegraphs the ending from the first paragraph. “Samuel” sees a son try to defend his mother from death. It seems not to follow the logic of its basis in faith. If the mother had been baptised and had led a life without sin, or, more likely, had been given the last rites after confession, the son should have faith his mother would go to Heaven and dismiss the words of the devil as lies. But you can ignore this comment. As an atheist, I’m afraid I don’t really understand stories like this. “Shotgun Shelter” takes us back into the real world with a kind of coming-of-age story in which three teens get into trouble and have to decide what to do about it. The answer is slightly extreme but not unexpected.

“Sonic Scarring” is a powerful alien invasion story with a very interesting variation on the answer to the traditional question, “What do the aliens want with us, anyway?” “The XX Agent” is one of the most successful stories in the collection, showing us how arbitrary the line is between life and death, and how often the choices we make dictate which side of the line we fall. “The Dead and Metty Crawford” takes us into familiar zombie territory, and as the title suggests, “The Sleeping Quartet” has us in a dream/nightmare scenario where the trick is telling the real from the imagined. “Useless Creek” is one of these nicely ambiguous stories in which even thinking about a lost love can be emotionally painful. As with all such situations, it’s the uncertainty that’s the most difficult to deal with. And, as is appropriate in collections, the publisher leaves the best till last. “Yellow Warblers” is a terrific story about the nature of acceptance and the role of knowledge when it comes to survival.

Having finished, three things are clear. Jason Sizemore is better at length than writing shorter stories. Second, he’s better at writing science fiction and naturalistic crime stories than straight horror. Finally, although this collection is slightly uneven in quality, there’s no doubt that when he makes a good connection with the ball, he hits it out of the park. All of which makes Irredeemable highly readable and worth picking up if you’re into short fiction which, for the most part, is influenced by the southern gothic style.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti

April 24, 2014 1 comment

the spectral link thomas ligotti

It’s a rather spooky experience, having read all the early works by Thomas Ligotti, to come back to him twenty years later to discover I’d hardly missed anything. While he was never what you might call prolific, he used to be moderately consistent. But, some ten or so years ago, he was affected by a form of writer’s block and has only just been spurred back into life. Actually, that’s a more literal sentence than you might imagine. In 2012, he was suddenly hospitalised and the near-death experience has sparked a resumption of the writing. So it comes to pass that I am holding a slim volume from Subterranean Press titled The Spectral Link. It contains two new stories from the master. That makes it something of an event in the horror community.

“Metaphysica Morum” sits comfortably in the class we might loosely call existential horror. Our protagonist is facing a form of psychological crisis. It’s not simply a matter of alienation or that he finds the world has grown meaningless. Either or both would suggest nihilist thinking. Rather there’s something about the way he perceives the world, both in his waking state and in dreams, that he finds profoundly depressing and unsettling. He seeks psychological help and, apart from having someone to talk with, he’s guided into meditation and relaxation therapy. In a not wholly professional way, his therapist assumes responsibility for organising our protagonist’s life. Before this meeting, our protagonist had not been sufficiently involved in the world to seek work or find any means of support for an independent lifestyle. The therapist places him in part-time work and provides a roof over his head. Although this offers the opportunity for more stability in his life, the lure of suicide grows stronger. Perhaps the expected trajectory for this story would be despair and the acceptance of death as hope is lost, but matters change when he receives a rather strange letter from someone who may be a member of his family. Ignoring whether the usual law of cause and effect applies, there’s also a change in the nature of his dreams. When he mentions the dream to his therapist, it triggers some alarm. The development of the plot then veers off into unexpected territory and arrives at a rather pleasing moment of unresolved ambiguity.

Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti

“The Small People” also deals with the nature of existence and considers both how we perceive the world and what may constitute a bigoted attitude towards one group of beings. Let’s for a moment assume this is an allegory about the effect of immigration. To those established in a place, the arrival of new people, perhaps of a smaller stature and not speaking the same language, might be viewed as threatening. Perhaps when they come, the original occupiers of the land feel uncomfortable and withdraw, leaving the newcomers to throw up whatever shelters they can using the materials to hand. It would all look chaotic, lacking the sophistication of the original township. Think about shanty towns or slums suddenly changing the urban landscape, creating blight, causing a loss in property values in neighbouring areas. Of course this is not something to be talked about openly, because to denigrate the immigrants would be to betray your bigotry. Discriminating against them would be illegal in some legal systems. But there does come a point when some feel they can’t retreat any further, when they have to take a stand on one of the issues they consider a moral imperative, e.g. mixed marriages between the original inhabitants and the newcomers. Yes, without getting too obsessed about the overall problem, focusing on just one issue might get results. And just think, all this could be a horror story not in any sense related to real-world problems. Allegories are like that. They enable us to think about socially difficult issues without treading on too many toes. . . You see that’s a part of the problem. Just how many toes do these newcomers have? The answer to the question actually asked in this story is typical of the paranoid thinking that afflicts some individuals who see other people as somehow different.

It’s a testament to Ligotti’s skill as an author that he makes two stories go a long way. This slim volume may be less than one-hundred pages in length but it packs a big punch both as an intellectual exercise and as horror for, when the chips are down, what can be more frightening than the product of an intelligent mind?

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Academic Exercises by K J Parker

April 4, 2014 4 comments

Academic Exercises by K J Parker

Academic Exercises by K J Parker (Subterranean Press, 2014) is an outstanding collection of short stories, novellas and novelettes. Most of the stories were published online so this represents the first hard copy opportunity to read them. It’s an interesting fact that Subterranean and Eclipse Online have been so active in promoting this writer’s work at shorter length. Better known as a novelist, this collection demonstrates that a true storyteller succeeds no matter what the length of the story. Each of the works of fiction is a masterclass of the art of narrative. What makes these stories even more interesting is that, in a way, the author more obviously crosses the line into fantasy with the supernatural assumed to be real. This departs somewhat from the novels which may be packaged as fantasy, but are actually historical fiction, i.e. mediaeval thrillers with no real systems of magic or supernatural beings on display. The three non-fiction pieces also included are delightfully illuminating insights into history.

 

“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” (2012 World Fantasy Award-Winner for Best Novella) is a wonderful story in which the relationship between a teacher and a brilliant student is charted from the early days in which the student despises the teacher’s poverty of imagination, through a period when the teacher’s reputation rises, until there’s a final moment of revenge that only a true master of the art could really appreciate. In civilised societies, things don’t get much more vicious than this. “A Rich, Full Week” sees a peripatetic brother going out on his rounds to keep the countryside free from assault from magical or generally supernatural beings. We discover he’s perhaps not the best of practitioners — they tend to stay in the city and do research — but there’s a dogged determination to avoid death (or other forms of extinction) that serves him well. “Amor Vincit Omnia” reminds us that some skills are as natural as breathing and we all do that, don’t we? So the question would be how best to persuade a breather to stop, just for a moment, so that an adjustment could be made. I suppose an appeal could be made. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Come to Mamma!”

 

“Let Maps to Others” (2013 World Fantasy Award-Winner for Best Novella) gives us an insight into the academic realm where scholarship is its own reward. Of course, if you did happen to come up with information about where your local Eldorado was located, there would be people willing to pay a lot for that. Unfortunately, there are no maps. . . But perhaps there might be a coded map reference showing the location. No, that’s far too unlikely, particularly if some of the documents were forgeries. Ah, now that really would add extra spice to the expedition sent out to the map coordinates. Or perhaps the crew should suck lemons. To say this story is completely entrancing is an understatement. “A Room with a View” allows us to continue the study of how magic may be performed. It all depends on being able to access mental constructs called rooms. The theory says you never find anything inside a room you enter for the first time, but you can take something into the room with you that may remain behind. It’s always useful to remember your theory should a practical need arise. “Illuminated” reminds us that the book is the medium through which one generation passes on useful information to the next. To protect the pages from contamination, it may be advisable to wear gloves. Some precautions before and during the reading itself may also be desirable. Otherwise the result may be more illuminating than you expect.

 

Purple & Black” was published separately and is already reviewed on this site at length. “The Sun and I” reflects on the old truism that, if God had not existed, we would have had to invent him. Here a group of young men are uncertain how best to avoid looming poverty. They are “inspired” to begin promoting a new religion, and then discover something unusual is happening. The way in which the story balances cynicism and a sense of wonder is masterful. “One Little Room an Everywhere” also deals with the unexpected arrival of a talent. A young man who had little talent as a magician discovers he may have the ability to create works of art. The uncertainties lie in the exact nature of the process and the real price to be paid. “Blue & Gold” is also reviewed at length on this site.

 

“On Sieges” (non-fiction) is a fascinating piece picking out the highlights of military strategy through the ages as the balance of power shifts between offensive and defensive capabilities. What makes this so interesting is not the recital of facts, many of which I already knew, but the reminder of just how long some of these ideas and tactics have been around. So even in the last century, trench warfare was briefly necessitated by the arrival of the machine gun but once tanks were perfected, the army could drive around the fortified line. Stalingrad shows us that aerial bombardment creates endless places for the defenders to dig in for protection, while the need to occupy land invaded will always require boots on the ground. “Cutting Edge Technology” takes us into the world of the sword and how to fight with them. Although it’s slightly off-point, this is worth reading to discover the truth about the Springfield Rifle used in the First World War. It’s a delicious irony. “Rich Men’s Skins” continues the exploration of hardware by looking at the history of armour. Although I knew a little of the fighting styles of the Greeks and Romans, this filled in more gaps in my knowledge than the other two. The three pieces taken together form an immediately accessible fund of knowledge.

 

Put all this together and you have one of the best collections of 2014. It should be shortlisted for every major award. Academic Exercises is a must read!

 

For other reviews of books by K J Parker, see:
Blue and Gold
Purple and Black
Sharps.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton

March 18, 2014 1 comment

Sergeant Chip by Bradely Denton

One of the most interesting aspects of reviewing at such volume is the sudden opportunity to notice coincidences — all the more ironic because one of the features in fiction that I find most aggravating is the coincidence, e.g. that instead of a plot developing along organic and natural lines, everything is structured in a way that events just happen to occur in the order necessary to achieve the desired effect. When this is woefully contrived, I happily leap on the improbability of the coincidence and deride the author for being a force of destiny. Well, a month or so ago, I reviewed a book with a dog as the protagonist and ruminated on the scarcity of first-person narratives featuring animals. In retrospect, this is a good thing because authors routinely fall into the trap of overly sentimentalising the way in which the animals are portrayed.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a set of three novellas, the titular story being about a poodle/labrador cross (the story was nominated for the 2005 Hugo Award and won the 2005 Sturgeon Award). We’re in the field of animal uplift for military purposes. Cognitive enhancement is a topic not uncommon in science fiction and medical thrillers (and animation blockbusters like Muntz’ dogs in Up). In this instance, we humans have been manipulating dogs for land use, and sealions and dolphins for use at sea. The most effective teams arise when the humans have real empathy for the animals. We ride with Chip and his human handler, Lieutenant Dial, who prove very good in the field, both for pubic demonstration purposes and when confronting the “enemy”. Thematically, this is a story about loyalty and the ethics of leadership. Because the dog is the point of view, we get to see multiple levels of duty in action. It starts with the relationship between the dog and his handler, moves up to the relationship between Dial, now promoted to Captain, and those under his command. And then spreads to look at the relationship between invading troops and unarmed civilians. Needless to say, the story doesn’t show the human side in a very good light apart from Dial, but each individual has his or her own rights and interests to protect with everything told in an unaffected prose with a clear eye for more objective values. This is an outstanding story.

Bradley Denton

Bradley Denton

“Blackburn and the Blade” was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and shows us a series character coming into a small town to regroup, re-equip and prepare to move on again. Except coming into a new environment often means meeting new people. At times, they can prove a dangerous distraction, introducing unexpected enemies. This is most elegantly put together, giving us a clear sight of all the relevant characters and mentioning the murder just before our “hero” came to town. Once we know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time for the murderer to reappear. Fortunately, there’s a celestial conjunction — now that’s what a proper coincidence looks like when you’re writing a noir supernatural thriller.

“The Adakian Eagle” was a nominee for the Edgar and, as that would suggest, it’s a superb story featuring an ageing Dashiell Hammett on manoeuvres in WWII. American troops found themselves in some interesting places when fighting the Japanese and this takes us to the Aleutian Islands in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only are they remote, but also volcanic and prone to rain. Once the Japanese had been defeated on Attu, the islands became a vital supply depot for the Russian campaign. This assistance to the Commies was somewhat ironic at the time and became even more so when the permafrost of the Cold War set in and the McCarthy backlash came to fruition. During the war, the cultural hostility is nicely captured here in the relationship between the Lieutenant Colonel and Dashiell Hammett, with the customary racial prejudice and contempt for those considered less intelligent also on display.

The story explores two convergent forces. The first we may call a belief in the potential of the supernatural to affect events in the real world. The second is the determination of an older and more experienced man to cut through the bullshit and do whatever is required to protect himself and anyone else who has fallen under his protection. The result is strictly speaking an investigation of a suspicious death on the side of one of the volcanos, but the influence of belief in the supernatural is immanent, providing a key element in both the short and longer term motivation for events. It should be said the other element in the motive is elegantly revealed as one of the more traditional and all too human desires. In the short term, the forces balance each other out — to that extent, everyone gets what they deserve. In the long term, history stays on track which is as it should be.

Bradley Denton is new to me but these three novellas convince me I really should take the time to track down more of his work. That means this collection has served its purpose and introduced an author whose range and diversity is worth exploring. Thank you Subterranean Press.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Strange New Words Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell

Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror by Ari Marmell (Smashwords, 2013) begins by posing an interesting question: whether a novelist can write good short stories. The problem is one of narrative design. If you formulate ideas which can only be explored at length, they end up crushed if pared down to less than 5,000 words. Conversely, someone who comes up with an idea for a short story is going to find it very difficult to sustain reader interest over 75,000 words — there has to be development and embellishment to the basic idea to help it grow. So here’s an author who cut his early teeth at length showing considerable skill when refocusing his art in the shorter form.

“The Cemetery Wyrm” is an elegant story about a boy who, when attending his grandfather’s funeral, discovers an overgrown and abandoned tomb at the edge of the woods next to the graveyard. The unmarked grave is topped by the magnificent carving of a dragon and, even though young, he’s instantly fascinated. Who could be buried there and why is the grave untended? The answers are a delightful surprise for the reader. Similarly, “The Purloined Ledger” is a neat variation on the Poe theme with a magical way of concealing a book of accounts. Of course, whether Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again is a different question. “The Shaman’s Tale” fits into a shared universe of orcs and fills in some of the backstory. As an outsider, I found this less interesting. “Railroad Spikes” gets us back on track with one of these “trap for the unwary” stories in which a train robber finds himself in a rather challenging situation. “The Rubies of Olun-Zeth” moves from a weird West to a Conan-like setting as our barbarian hero meets up with an old flame in search of treasure. The only problem, of course, when dealing with a very old language, is how accurately it can be translated. “Big Apple, Small Serpent” keeps it simple, short and sweet as the adventure of the missing cobra in New York is explained.

Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

“Reaver” is one of these stories charting the irreversible momentum in human emotions where superstitious fear collides with rationality, and both lose. “Twenty-One-Oh” is a reflection on the old days of the West when the Pony Express riders upheld their motto, “The mail must go through.” This may be a cyberpunk story in spirit but only the technology has changed. “Tithe” suggests that no matter how clever you may think you are, there’s always someone else who can outthink you — at least in the short term. But if time’s not in the equation, the revenge may come through many years of diligent effort.

“Than to Serve in Heaven” has a slightly unusual prodigal return to his father’s side which is, in some respects, nothing more than an act of manipulation. One side want the other to change. After the return, perspectives change but there remains the unanswered question. Why did the son leave in the first place? “The Ogre’s Pride” poses another interesting question. In the heat of the moment, all kinds of misjudgments can be made so, when pride is at stake, just how far will you go to recover what has been lost? “In Deepest Silence” is a rather pleasing submarine encounter where the captain’s preference for valour in preference to discretion has unfortunate results. “One Solitary Scale” reminds us there are times when you should not strive for absolute perfection. Sometimes, a blemish is expedient. This leaves us with “Tropes of the Trade” as a short nonfiction essay on how to conceive the characters and events in a fantasy context. Like most short pieces on the craft of writing, it does little more than introduce ideas and give a few examples. But it is, at least, going in the right direction. Taken overall, the collection shows an author in complete command of the language of fantasy and horror. Even though some of the stories are conceptually light, the writing has a bravura quality which carries the reader through to the end. It’s good value for money.

For a review of another book by Ari Marmell, see In Thunder Forged.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith

December 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Everything You Need

Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith (Earthling Publications, 2013) is an outstanding collection of seventeen stories, six of which are original to this limited edition volume plus authorial insights into the process of writing them. It’s one of the best single author collections I’ve read in 2013.

“This Is Now” is one of these stories that deliberately tantalises and passes on. The set-up establishes a curiosity bump. Why should the military set up an electrified perimeter fence just outside this fairly obscure town. It’s just woodlands. And, of course, young adults with time on their hands, have every incentive to test the current at regular intervals along the fence. After all, if there should ever be a chance, they would always want to see what the fence is so keen to protect. Changing tone, “Unbelief” is a very elegant story about a contract killer. After a while, the professional goes about his business by a set routine. The job comes in, he completes it with his usual high standard of care, and receives payment without delay from another satisfied customer. Life with his family is comfortable. The question, of course, is whether this serene lifestyle can continue indefinitely or might there be a proverbial worm in the apple to disturb his appetite for more work. “Walking Wounded” grows out of P P Arnold’s hit “The First Cut Is the Deepest”. When a relationship gets into difficulties, there are several ways in which the partners can hurt themselves or each other. In some fantasy stories, the voodoo doll might come into play. In others, people would just feel cut up by the whole experience. If this happens, it leaves the problem of how the healing process is to be triggered.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

“The Seventeenth Kind” is a wonderful shaggy dog story. For those of you not into British idioms, this is a longish tale that rambles all over the planet, with digressions and parenthetical wanderings thrown in to entertain us en route until we arrive at the revelation of what thing has seventeen kinds and the payoff which should always be delivered with a knowing smirk. Please forgive the divagation from the norm, but once I start a one-hour disquisition, I keep going no matter what happens. “A Place For Everything” is for those who agonise over the way to shelve books. Should it be alphabetical by author and then by title? Well, for those who prefer apple-pie order in their surroundings, here comes a cautionary tale of the ranking order in any given room from a mote of dust upwards in the hierarchy of importance. “The Last Barbecue” wonders whether the gourmet zombie, given the choice, would prefer a beefburger, lovingly grilled with special sauce, or a surviving human in a lakeside resort. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. “The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads” deals with the unexplored continent that is the mind of a six-year-old. Just how seriously should you take the words spoken by your child? For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s one or both parents or a teacher or the principal. No matter how well you know the child and how regularly you interact with him, it’s still guesswork whether to treat his words as credible.

“Unnoticed” retells the story of a man living on the streets. It explains why he’s now homeless, and is completely entrancing because it’s unclassifiable in terms of genre. I’d like to think of it as science fiction but there are all sorts of other possible explanations. It’s the uncertainty that makes it so attractive. “The Good Listener” reminds us there are always lacunae in our own recollections or the records people leave about their own activities. Of course, in this internet age, it’s possible to engage in a little archaeology, to dig into the past to extract the missing details. But equally there are times when it’s better to leave a hole in the data unfilled. It will just feel better that way. “Different Now” wonders how much your worldview might change if an unstable relationship finally ended. Obviously, if she leaves him, things will be different for him. But how different? “Author of the Death” is as elegant a piece of metafiction as you could ever hope to read as, in Luigi Pirandello style, two of six characters go in search of their author. Just think how much of a surprise it would be for the author if they found him. “Sad Dark Thing” is elegaic as those who have lost something dear to them wrap themselves in loneliness and wait for the pain to end.

“What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” (reprinted in Best Horror of the Year Volume Two) reminds us of that some of us, when younger and less experienced, were afraid of the dark. We asked our parents for a light to be left on so that, should we wake, we would not be afraid. But just suppose, one night when we woke up, the light was gone. That would be a bad thing, wouldn’t it. “The Things He Said” is a rather pleasing riff on the post-apocalypse trope with a man determined to survive. He remembers well all those lessons his father taught him when he was a boy. Now’s his chance to put them all into practice. It would be unfortunate if his father should return and find things not properly organised. “Substitutions” (first appeared in Black Wings) teaches us that although life may sometimes be greener or at least less environmentally unfriendly on the other side of the hill, actually going to look may have its drawbacks. “The Woodcutter” is a rare incursion into fantasy in which a traveller tries to earn an honest penny doing tricks in pubs while waiting for the chance to go home. Sadly, things don’t always turn out as you want in fairy stories. And finally, “Everything You Need” is a story about the process of grieving and, instead of going through a number of stages, it counsels you savagely attack a filing cabinet to get over your loss. That way, you can move on with hope into a different future.

The full jacket artwork for Everything You Need

The full jacket artwork for Everything You Need

There’s delightfully creepy cover art from Vincent Chong to complete the package.

For a review of an interesting literary experiment by Michael Marshall Smith and Subterranean Press, see The Gist.

How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swersky

October 21, 2013 Leave a comment

How_the_World_Became_Quiet

How the World Became Quiet by Rachel Swersky (Subterranean Press, 2013) starts with “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” which won the 2010 Nebula Award for Novella, and was nominated in the Best Novella category for the 2011 Hugo Award and 2011 World Fantasy Award. It offers an opportunity to consider whether the roles society builds for different groups can ever find an objective justification. Except, of course, even the implication that it’s possible to formulate absolute reasons for being “right” is flawed. What may seem self-evidently justifiable to one culture, may seem crude oppression to another. Take slavery and sexism as examples. We could hold up a multitude of reasons for approving the intellectual and artistic achievements of Ancient Greece while turning a blind eye to its exploitation of slaves and the patriarchal treatment of women. Democracy may have been a good idea for the few men entitled to vote. . . So here’s a woman who achieves power and status as a magician in a matriarchy. Ironically, to maintain the population numbers, the leadership has to distinguish between women as leaders and women as brood mares. Just being the right gender does not entitle you to all the privileges the society grants. Our magician is then involuntarily forced to travel through time and encounters the range of cultures that follow. Not all experiences are without conflict, the point being to decide when the social rules that shaped each individual are to be upheld against all challenges and when it’s appropriate to bend or break those rules, e.g. should a woman teach a man or should a man use his power to force a woman to disclose what she knows? The answers given here are beautifully thought-provoking.

“Monstrous Embrace” is a nicely nuanced allegory on the nature of ugliness and its potential power to remove injustices and inequalities. When all are ugly in a kingdom, is the kingdom not immune to invasion — the invaders will fear they will become ugly simply by being on that land. When there’s no such thing as beauty, even the one-eyed hag can seem attractive to men. Such are the questions. But positively embracing ugliness. . . now that’s something likely to take more courage than anyone has. “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tale” is whimsy in a style vaguely reminiscent of Edward Lear as different animals populate the shores and rat pirates, occasionally aided and abetted by a cat, plunder and pillage, and later run plantations bought with their treasure. It’s interesting but goes on too long. “Heartstrung” returns to the allegorical vein with a culture that externalises a woman’s heart — it’s literally carried on her sleeve — so she feels nothing for herself. Indeed, the ritual for acknowledging the arrival of adulthood requires the daughter to accept the father’s slap with a smile. “Marrying the Sun” diverts into fantasy with a mortal woman, whose PhD specialism is the study of the sun, responds favorably to a matchmaker’s suggestion she should marry Helios. The problem with gods is their essential narcissism. They revel in the idea of being the centre of attention. Let’s face it, in more ancient times, they were worshipped. So for Helios to find a lonely woman who lives to study him. Well, it’s a match made in heaven, isn’t it?

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

If we ignore the political context for “A Monkey Will Never Be Rid of Its Black Hands” and set aside the intriguing sequence of folk sayings, the heart of the story is whether we can accept traumatic injuries and develop sufficient will-power to adjust. It’s so easy to give up and fall into dependency without considering what might have been lost. “The Sea of Trees” is a fascinating and rather beautiful supernatural story set in Japan where, unless someone sleeps close to a suicide’s dead body on the first night following death, the ghost might return to Earth. In a fugue state, an individual cannot break into or out of the cycle without outside help. Sometimes, all it takes is a human touch, a sign someone else genuinely cares what happens to you. “Fields of Gold”* (nominated for the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novelette) is a delightful story about the afterlife. It’s remarkable how cosmopolitan it is and, given the company, how easy it is to find compatible people to spend eternity with.

“Eros, Philia, Agape” (nominated for 2010 Hugo and 2010 Theodore Sturgeon Awards) is an elegy on the search for love. When a daughter loses the father who slept with her, how does she grieve? Can she find someone else to love? Such questions assume undamaged human emotions. Perhaps if she had a parrot, or a robot with programming to make it attractive, or she adopted a human baby. . . no, that would would just be a recipe for a dysfunctional family. “The Monster’s Million Faces” wonders whether it would be possible to heal the scars left after a young boy is abducted. Obviously nothing can undo the facts, but could a psychologist find an emotional balm to salve the wound and enable a more normal future personality? “Again and Again and Again” ** demonstrates why we should never have children. It’s far better for the species to die out than to have to go through the endless torture of children. “Diving After the Moon” is the metaphor buried within the folk story used to create the means to recreate the same ending. It’s a particularly elegant piece of writing.

“Scenes from a Dystopia” blurs the line between fiction and commentary to ask a very pertinent question. In all social systems, there are winners and losers. So what may appear to be a dystopian society may actually be a technocracy protecting people against the possibility of being seen to fail. Why is a capitalist society which allows massive disparity in the distribution of wealth and opportunity not considered a dystopia when so many lead lives of misery? “The Taste of Promises” is a YA story with an emotional heart an adult can relate to. Although the premise is explicitly sfnal, the reality of sibling relationships where one child is disabled is all too true. “With Singleness of Heart” reminds us that bonding can sometimes only come through unpleasant rituals. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” is a bold statement, “If you’re going to do apocalypse, do it properly!” quoth the raven. “How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth” repeats the apocalypses, never quite managing to remove all life from Earth. Perhaps the insects and the trees can finally stabilise the situation (if they have a million or so years of peace). “Speech Strata” as a final gesture, words being of no importance in the distant future, suggests individuality might be a passing phase until everyone is subsumed into the dance.

How the World Became Quiet is a collection bristling with ideas and elegant prose. The one or two weaker stories are never less than interesting, and the vast majority are rather beautiful, exploring past, present and future in search of inspiration and enlightenment. It’s one of the best collections so far this year.

* First appeared in Eclipse Four edited by Jonathan Strahan.

** Reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.