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The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow

December 5, 2013 1 comment

BestHorror5_CoverPanel

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2013) sees our experienced anthologist trawling the oceans of short stories with a net mesh set to catch only the best.

“Nikishi” by Lucy Taylor is one of these elegant stories which tantalises the reader as to which of the protagonists will be the biter bit. Set in a desolate part of Africa, it deals with the raw emotions of fear, greed and love, producing an entirely unsentimental way of arriving at the undoubtedly correct ending. “Little America” by Don Chaon* is a very ingenious and rather affecting zombie story. Somewhat unusually, the zombie is sympathetic albeit completely at the mercy of his hunger, making this a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford* is also about choices and the penalties people must pay for selfishness rather than trust. Perhaps people only show their true nature when in extremis. “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson is a slightly experimental piece reflecting on the habit of some female of the species to eat the males during or immediately after impregnation. This says a great deal about the sexual imperative of the males and the need of females to provide suitable food for their offspring. “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski is another highly original zombie story, speculating on what would happen to zombies if a cure was developed. Would this cure be given to every zombie who could be saved or would there always be some who, despite their involuntary consumption of the living, we would not want to save?

“The Callers” by Ramsay Campbell plays a very nice game with the language of bingo calling. It’s surprising how much menace can be generated from the ritual of call and response when the women of a Lancashire town warm up for their traditional Morris dance about a chosen maypole (and the younger the better). “Mariners’ Round” by Terry Dowling is one of the best “horror” stories I’ve read in a long while. It offers everything I look for in a quest trope. No matter how young or old, we all have dreams. Some we realise, but life can be hard. It frustrates. It deals out pain. But just suppose there was a way in which you could realise your heart’s desire, you would take the risk, wouldn’t you? You would want to believe the magic was real. Here’s three young boys who’ve grown older. Perhaps they’ll take the chance to ride on this strange old machine. “Nanny Grey” by Gemma Files is an example of a stock plot rewritten most expertly. All the trappings are appropriately contemporary, but the biter bit by protective “other” trope runs along predictable lines.

“The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir* has a wonderfully mordant sense of humour as we navigate the tricky waters of a young girl learning the ropes of real magic from an “old” mage. Think of it as being like peeling an onion. Each time a new spell is mastered, the food intake increases to sustain the amount of energy required for the magic to work. At some point, major dietary changes may be required. “Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon beguiles with its simplicity. It economically explains the situation, pushes us forward in time a few hours, and leaves us with the imponderable decision of what should be done. “The House on Ashley Avenue” by Ian Rogers is beautifully paced as our investigative duo go their separate ways, the secrets of the house to explore. It’s a delight! “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn is the third zombie story and again takes a completely unexpected direction with a voice-over artist recording the track for a documentary about the music that emerged during the time when small communities were isolated during the plague. The hook lies in the rather delightful ambiguity as to the source of some of the music recorded by a musicologist as he travelled around the infested areas.

“Bajazzle” by Margo Lanagan* is a slightly disturbing story in which an extreme form of female display creates social difficulties — it seems without the police prosecuting the women who participate for public indecency — which is juxtaposed with the behaviour of an erratic and unfaithful husband. I’m not wholly convinced there’s real synergy between the two narrative threads, but the end result does highlight male hypocrisy on dress codes and criteria for determining the limits on behaviour, i.e. younger women are expected to wear sexualised clothing to show varying degrees of bare flesh while featuring covered breasts or other physical “attributes” for inspection by ogling men, but they are not supposed to flaunt genitals or act in a way men define as unseemly and provocative. “The Pike” by Conrad Williams is a melancholic tale of an ageing man who’s coming to terms with his own mortality while fishing in fact and in his memories for the ghosts of the past. “The Crying Child” by Bruce McAllister* is magnificently weird. It starts off as if it’s going to be a ghost story with a coming-of-age overlay, but it proves to be genuinely unusual both in concept and execution. Some of the imagery is quite startling as we move past the set-up into the big reveal. This is a stand-out story!

“This Circus the World” by Amber Sparks may only be two pages long, but it manages to provoke thought on the cruelties we inflict on each other and the hypocrisy that then taints our view of the outcomes. “Some Picture in an Album” by Gary McMahon is one of these deceptively simple stories. All it does it describe a few old photographs yet this litany of stored memories manages to evoke menacing responses. It’s beautifully done. “Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud* starts off in a conventional monster ate my friends mode and then veers off into the hinterland of broken people. It would be good if we could always come to terms with our own failures but many people find fear and despair too attractive to give up. They stay broken. “Final Exam” by Megan Arkenberg plays a similar game to McMahon’s story, subverting the format of a multiple choice exam to explore why a marriage should break down and whether the monsters that came out of the sea were from a different dimension or had evolved on our own sea bed (or under her bed). “None So Blind” by Stephen Bacon shows us that even after the most terrible events, life goes on. It may not always be the most pleasant existence, but when you’re waiting for death, one finds a respite where one can.

“The Ballad of Boomtown” by Priya Sharma builds on folk stories, reminding us that traditional values of loyalty and respect are supposed to prevail. Yet underneath the veneer of modernity, raw emotions like lust and guilt sweep aside pretensions and leave the more primitive and destructive side of our personalities exposed. “Pig Thing” by Adam L G Nevill pursues the same idea of a landscape that has endured through time and resents the arrival of new people and the “modern” things they bring with them. Of course, you can give these interlopers a hint but, if they fail to leave, well they have no-one but themselves to blame. “The Word-Made Flesh” by Richard Gavin continues with the power of grief to distort intelligence and snatch away sanity. Here’s a tragic man who has lost his wife and son in an accident. He becomes obsessed with the idea of reclaiming them to the point where he, too, passes beyond life itself. “Into the Penny Arcade” Claire Massey is an atmosphere piece that builds pleasingly but ends on a slightly inconsequential note. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A Snyder** deals with a different type of hunger and, as transformation beckons, nicely leaves ambiguous whether the final thoughts are delusional or the emergence of a new being from the chrysalis of the old husk of a body. “Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron draws on his early life in the North to produce a riveting variation on the traditional theme of the Wild Hunt. It’s a perfect way to bring this rather fine anthology to a rousing conclusion.

*Nominated for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette or Short Story.
**First appeared in Dark Faith: Invocations and won the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Story.

 

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez

December 2, 2013 4 comments

The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez

We’re back to the age-old question of what we should be looking for when we read a new book. I suppose we want some degree of novelty or originality. After a while, reading and rereading all the most obvious plots and tropes become boring. So it can break the monotony when someone tries something new. Let’s start off with the solar sail. This used to be quite a common idea to play with. Our space vessel would literally spread its wings and the currents of space would drive the ship forward. Hence, for example, David Weber uses gravitational sails and has “naval engagements” in his Honor Harrington series, while David Drake’s RCN series more explicitly has space ships with rigging that has to be stripped down before the ship can enter an atmosphere. Following in the same tradition, Bob Shaw has wooden spaceships crewed by ragged astronauts in the Land and Overland Trilogy. In Philip Reeve’s Larklight series, the alternate history context is provided by a British Empire now encompassing the solar system with Victorian sailing vessels powered by alchemical engines, cf the Spelljammer gaming universe.

I could go on but you should get the message that one of the two narrative threads in The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez is just channelling Patrick O’Brian and recycling Philip Reeve and the film Treasure Planet (I also note a later form of shipping in a paddle steamer which appears in The Fifth Element). This latest contribution to the trope changes the alternate history context to a British Empire sailing into space using eighteenth century naval ships of the line given breathable air and gravity through alchemy. So literally half this “new” book is a rehash of old plot ideas with eighteenth century British naval life extended to include outer space and the planets which are all habitable with at least two alien species of different levels of technology established on different planets and moons. As with the majority of such space fantasy plots written during the early twentieth century, we even have a pirate ship which ferries the primary antagonist around the solar system. Although some of the detail is quite well worked out, this half of the book is rather tedious and wholly derivative. I might have forgiven the almost total lack of originality if either the plotting had been wildly inventive or the writing intentionally humorous, but the plot has nothing new and it’s written with a completely straight face. It even plays the same game as Ronald W Clark in Queen Victoria’s Bomb in which famous historical characters appear, do their thing for a few pages and take a quick bow. We should be grateful American presidents don’t break off their parochial concerns to start killing vampires.

Michael J Martinez

Michael J Martinez

The second half of the book is set in the twenty-second century on Mars with the Joint Space Command using hard science to move between the planets while commercial interests extract minerals from Mars. The tension between the military and business factions is routine. When there are unprecedented seismic events, the security forces want the mining operations suspended. Not caring how many men may be injured or killed, the hard-nosed capitalists insist on “dig, baby, dig!” Needless to say, the future world of conventional science soon collides with alternate history world of alchemy in a multiverse plot. An alien is trying to break out of an interdimensional prison and breaks down the barriers between our two human-dominated dimensions with entirely predictable results.

It’s possible to pull of such a conflation of different plot elements when the author has wit and verve. Sadly, all this is plodding and predictable. Worse, the fact-checking is deficient with a cricket match overseen by a referee. That’s like having a baseball match mediated by a judge. When Night Shade Books was collapsing financially, it seems to have bought up the rights to some first novels. They are cheap and, in an undiscriminating market, can occasionally hit the jackpot — all authors have to start somewhere. As part of the settlement with creditors and authors, Skyhorse is honouring existing contracts on modified terms. Hence The Daedalus Incident sees the light of day. Hopefully, Skyhorse will soon take a grip of the editorial process and improve the standard of the books it buys. In this I note the complete lack of information on the website under the Night Shade banner. It might gives us all greater confidence if the new owner would communicate with its readership.

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

Exile by Betsy Dornbusch

April 25, 2013 2 comments

Exile Betsy Dornbusch

Exile by Betsy Dornbusch (Night Shade Books, 2013) is the first in what has been billed as The Seven Eyes series but, with the publisher disappearing into a black hole, it’s not at all certain whether you will be able to acquire this book or whether a new publisher will release any more in the series. Although, truth be told, I’m massively indifferent as to whether any more work is published by this author which prompts me to one of my minor musings. Have you noticed how the noble bagel has been taken from its iconic role of bread, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and applied to the equally pleasing game of tennis. But the meaning has been turned pejorative to signal an unequal contest in which the winner of the set triumphed 6-0. Ah, such are the vagaries of language. . . but this should also indicate a deeper truth.

Not everyone is a top class performer and, when players come together for a game, superior skills almost always dictate the winner. The same is true in almost every human activity. Some people are better than others and we should not be ashamed to admit it. So let’s assume we can rank everyone from top class, through second, third, and so on down to total failure. If in international terms, I’m ranked as third class, I take that as an honour. When you look at the world’s total population, the idea there are only several million people better than me is high praise. All of which brings me to the immediate book for review. In international terms, this is an indifferent fifth-class sword and sorcery fantasy. Put in more precise terms, the writing is, at best, stodgy and the plot is hopelessly contrived and formulaic. That said, I’ve read an uncountable number of novels that are worse or, indeed, failed to finish novels that were total failures. So, in real terms, this is not quite as bad as it could have been.

Betsy Dornbusch

Betsy Dornbusch

So what’s it about? Well, there’s this cousin from the wrong side of the bed to the King of Monoea. He’s framed for the murder of his wife and, as the title suggests, exiled to Akrasia. So here comes a guy with superior skills as a bowman, having been a leader of men in the King’s Black Guard. He’s dumped in this foreign land in a miserable physical condition, having not exactly been given VIP treatment on the voyage to strand him. From this moment on, he’s on an inexorable rise to the top of the heap. Every time he has a chance to do the right thing, he does it. If he needs rescuing, this is carried by some conveniently-to-hand people. Whereas my own life experience has been one of slippery slopes tending in a downward direction, this Draken can’t help but end up beside Queen Elena. Naturally he fights against the disloyalty to the memory of his wife but this is the kind of woman no hero in a novel like this can resist.

What makes all this faintly risible is the way in which problems are solved. So, for example, he’s pretty useless with a sword and this is a sword and sorcery book, so he meets a magician who can bond him with the soul of a great swordsman. This gives him a guide to local conditions, great fighting skills, and someone to talk with whenever the conversation around him peters out. And, guess what, the sword he has turns out to have magic powers. That’s a useful plus. So the author presents us with a hero who, metaphorically speaking, can walk on water as we watch his miraculous progress round this island of exile until he works out who’s trying to depose the Queen and why. Then there’s some fighting and the Kingdom is saved.

Next book please.

Sorry that’s ambiguous. I’m not interested in reading the next book in this series. I’m hoping the next book in the pile to be read is better. Exile by Betsy Dornbusch is not recommended.

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

Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers

Blind God's Bluff

In the simple days of my youth, there were an alarming number of fantasy stories in which the hero is suddenly made aware he or she has magical powers. This was wish fulfillment overcompensation just after the war. There we were, walking around towns and cities with major bomb damage, wondering when life would get back to normal and speculating on how much easier it would be if we were all endowed with superpowers to clear the sites, dig new foundations and get everything ready for the rebuilding. It offered hope for the future when we could read about people who could not only rebuild, but use their powers to ensure we never had to go through another war. In these stories, we were there, looking over their shoulders as they experienced shock and surprise at the discovery they could do super stuff. These “ordinary” men and women had been living routine lives in whatever settings the authors picked. Suddenly they are pitched into situations in which their very survival depends on them mastering these new skills and besting those who have spent decades (or in some cases centuries) practising and refining their powers. And all this before eating breakfast and learning the magic spell, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side”. The most annoying feature of this approach is the assumption some people are so inherently superior to others, they could always prevail because they are “good”. It’s a kind of übermenschlich approach to the traditional battle between good and evil. In this binary world, there’s a superhuman lurking in everyone, just waiting for the chance to leap into action when the chips are down and the barbarians are at the gates.

And talking of chips, here’s Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers (Night Shade Books, 2013) an urban fantasy novel built around a poker game. I confess to being a reasonably good bridge player but poker leaves me cold. This judgement has nothing to do with the merits of the game. The blend of straight probability calculation and psychology is intriguing and, when played at a high level, it can be interesting to watch. But with only one or two exceptions like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), the idea of making poker a central plot element has not attracted me. So, from the outset, this book is facing an uphill struggle. Now add in the human who turns out to have superpowers trope and you see why this book is never going to get anywhere in my estimation. So how does all this work?

Richard Lee Byers

Richard Lee Byers

Well, within ten seconds of our hero stopping to help an injured “man”, he’s attacked by feral fairies who try to rip out his eyes. Now you’ll understand this is not an everyday occurrence as you walk down a busy city street. Usually, the only thing assaulting your senses are the garden gnomes and their faux clay smiles. But the old “man” touches him and, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side” this awaken superpowers. In an instant, he’s able to throw up a force field. Moments later, he’s sending out his Ka (as in Gifford Hillary by Dennis Wheatley). In this form, he’s able to fetch his car, i.e. even when on the astral plane, he can manifest in the physical world to drive a car — neat trick, huh? And all this without any practice and within minutes of understanding the world of the supernatural and magic are real. This guy is a real operator in every sense of the word. As we go on, we meet the other players in the poker game. It’s the usual Friday night crowd in the backroom at the pub: the Mummy, a vampish female, a mechanical man calling himself Gimble of the Seven Soft Rebukes, a Queen Bee, and a demonlike figure called Wotan.

The other feature I found distinctly wearing on the nerves was the general lack of seriousness. This is not to say the book is a barrel of laughs. Perish the thought that any work in the urban fantasy subgenre should be a comedy. But there’s a lightness in the tone that militates against there being any sense of menace or threat to our “hero”. This does not deny that two of the dream sequences have potential in the horror zone, but you just know our hero is never seriously at risk and is always going to emerge stronger and more experienced from whatever the latest challenge is. The race at the end is overblown and the final nail in the coffin. Overall, I regret to say I found Blind God’s Bluff tiresome and, even more disconcertingly, when I finally arrived at the end, I discovered that it’s left open to become a series. If that’s the case, I will definitely not be reading it. This does indicate an acknowledgement that Richard Lee Byers is a competent author who has a good command of the craft of writing. It’s just that he’s allowed himself to be diverted from the need to write something genuinely scary by his obvious love for poker and his desire to construct an urban fantasy suitable for teens and young women to read. Definitely not recommended for anyone who likes red meat.

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

Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Terminal Island greatshell

As is sometimes the way with these reviews, I’m going to begin with a small autobiographical note to explain why I have never consumed anything hallucinogenic. Being born into the world before antibiotics were generally available to the public, I contrived to catch several diseases which produced very high temperatures. Having experienced hallucinations the “natural” way, I’ve never felt the need to induce one by taking anything pharmacological. This is not to say I’m prejudiced against people who disable their senses by chemical means. Whether advertently or inadvertently, people are free to do what they like to their own bodies and minds. But I’ve no sympathy for such people if they injure themselves or others while voluntarily under the influence.

Having got that off my chest, I come to Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell (Night Shade Books, 2013). It reminds me of books like Ritual by David Pinner and The Magus by John Fowles where our “hero” goes to a village or an island and finds his worldview shaken by what he finds. In this case, our hero is Henry Cadmus who returns to Catalina in search of his mother. As a young boy, Henry spent some time on the island but was the proverbial square peg, never seeming to find any degree of acceptance from anyone else on the island, and being relentlessly bullied, particularly by the girls at the school. Those of you who enjoy classical mythology allusions will notice that the original Cadmus was sent off on one of these hopeless quests by his father. Zeus had run off with his sister Europa and he was supposed to persuade the ruler of Olympus to return her. When that proved a little too challenging for a mere mortal, he founded Thebes and became mildly famous. In other words, the original Cadmus was a wanderer who eventually made a home for himself and settled down.

To explain my reaction to this book, I need to offer a definition of “horror” as applied to books and films. No matter what the content, the author’s intention is to induce a fairly specific emotional response. This can range from fear through to disgust. As cultures change and supposedly become more sophisticated, the concept of horror also changes because the innocent reactions of a young society no longer occur in world-weary societies who have seen it all before. This is not to say we cannot find ghosts stories scary and must always have some gore-splattered maniac hacking off limbs or inducing others to hack off their own limbs. This is not a race to ever more extreme descriptive content. But writers need to reflect the contemporary psychology and cultural expectations of their readers when deciding what constitutes horror content.

Walter Greatshell leaning forward toward the light

Walter Greatshell leaning forward toward the light

In many ways, this is a classic horror novel. Structurally, the first part is a twin narrative showing the arrival of our hero, his wife and young child on the island, and recalling the events of his childhood. As is always the case, the childhood sequence plays the unreliable narrator game. By definition, children have limited experience and therefore frequently misinterpret what they see and hear. In high stress situations where the fight or flee instincts strongly favour the latter, it’s easy for the emotions to prevent a clear overview of what’s actually happening. In modern America, we can all discount stories of supernatural events. Even if there are cults practising pagan or other religions, they tend to be rather harmless, hiding their rituals away from sight, ever fearful of discovery. So the first part is full of inconclusive facts and deft hints, setting the scene with considerable skill. Indeed, the construction of the plot is meticulous in the way all the details mesh together in unexpected ways. Of course Henry is reckless. This is expected of heroes in this type of situation. As a result he discovers information of a major criminal conspiracy and infers the death of his mother. In a panic, he tries to get off the island with his wife and child but this proves challenging..

During the course of his increasingly desperate attempts to escape, he becomes an unreliable narrator. This is not really his fault. Some of the food or drink he consumes has been spiked with a hallucinogen. Who can blame him for taking a moment to refuel while trying to plan the escape. Unfortunately, this untethers us from reality. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood but I found a lot of the sequences at the end rather tiresome. Although the way all the plot elements come together is wonderful to behold, some of the revelations are less than credible. To take just two unresolved issues as examples. With the benefit of hindsight, are we to assume the girls would not have maimed or killed Henry as a boy when he was cornered on the pier? In the current situation, why is the cult running the scam and what does it do with the money? When it would be so easy to more positively control Henry, allowing him to discover the secret of the condo is distinctly odd. All the membership needs to do once he’s back on the island is feed him the jungle juice and start working on his mind. Making him run around like this is clearly redundant and could get him injured, i.e. it’s only there to pad out the book. Any excuse that the cult wanted to discover whether there was a mole in their ranks is a red herring. Over time it could have worked out the answer after a particular death had been engineered.

So there you have it. The first two-thirds of the book is a marvellous example of how to create atmospheric horror with little touches and flourishes. Even though I lost some patience towards the end, Terminal Island remains an impressive piece of writing and, so long as you don’t mind the increasingly surreal impressions crowding in on our hero’s mind, you will probably find this an excellent addition to the horror canon.

For a review of another book by Walter Greatshell, see Enormity (written under the pseudonym W G Marshall).

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

Swords of Waar by Nathan Long

November 13, 2012 2 comments

This review of Swords of Waar by Nathan Long (Night Shade Books, 2012) is a little complicated so, taking out my barbarian sword, I’m going to cut through to the bone and start with a peremptory instruction.

If you have not read Jane Carver of Waar, read my review (the link is at the bottom of the page). You should read that book first. In a perfect world of books in series, you should always read the first one in the trilogy/series before going on to the second. But suppose you want to be daring, push the envelope just a little, you could read this one first. If you think that’s the edgy thing to do go, read the review of Jane of Waar and substitute this title. Everything I said in general terms about the first and its relationship to Edgar Rice Burroughs applies to this.

If you have read Jane of Waar, I need to clear the air with a brief recital of my reading experience of this Jane Carver sequel. It starts with an, “Oh, God,” which is pretty strong stuff for an atheist like me, “this is just more of the same,” yada yada, “more ERB pastiche,” yada yada, “been there, done that, got the chain-mail T-shirt.” And then about one-third, or perhaps closer to halfway, through I suddenly realised that the initial lack of innovation in the style and the sacrifice of plot originality in repeating the “return to Waar” trope — as in The Gods of Mars by ERB — didn’t matter. I was actually reading a very clever story. Yes, friends, I was seduced by the quality of the narrative into liking this ERB-style stuff all over again.

Nathan Long channelling a biker chick

It’s fucking humiliating, that’s what it is! How can I actually like reading an updated version of period crap, particularly when Nathan Long shot his bolt on the pastiche front in the first book?

Well I like it because it takes itself seriously when it comes to developing a credible plot in an incredible situation. The problem with ERB-style books is usually that the plot is subservient to the pursuit of female pulchritude by excessively muscled heroes with the slaughter of various monsters on the way to the several climaxes and a big fuck-up narrowly avoided at the end. This is not to say there’s no baby-making at or near the end. Under normal circumstances, the relevant couples are insatiable whenever the opportunity presents itself (although the language describing the couplings is usually allusive rather than direct). But the standard ending is disaster narrowly averted or, in some books, the hero being sent back to Earth before he can consolidate his position (that’s Karma Sutra position XXXVI, of course). Ah, yes, I should mention that apart from the fairly extensive use of the verb and adjectival forms of “fuck”, there’s less sexual activity in Swords of Waar than in the first book. This time our happy couple are having cross-cultural problems about how to define their relationship.

She’s made her declaration of love and just wants to get on with life. He’s also declared love but it’s not quite love as biker chicks understand it. Waar’s version of love is one of these deeply sexist social constructs Chaucer would have approved in which the women stay at home and allow the men to do what they do best. The fact this would usually involve dying at an early age after bedding multiple mistresses is not something lost on our heroine. Indeed, it’s her proactive approach to the relationship that’s causing the cultural problem. If her man is in danger, she has no compunction about literally picking him up and carrying him out of danger. Needless to say, he finds this public loss of dignity difficult to accept, what with his code requiring him to be the one doing the carrying. The fact he couldn’t lift her off the ground is not something he would choose to consider when his honour is at stake. Put another way, this social dinosaur needs to get with the flow and let our Earth heroine do her thing, save the planet and bed the man (that’s him, of course). Anyway, this enforced celibacy is good for her soul if not for other parts of her.

Of course, our couple are reunited physically at the end and, as must happen in all ERB-style books, there’s lots of heels kicking and penetrations into the nether regions. That’s after a planetary-scale ejaculation that comes as a result of our heroine’s caresses of the right knobs and buttons. Indeed, in terms of the passage of the years, the eruptions are not at all premature but rather timely. So this is a wonderfully enjoyable romp through the science fantasy landscape except Swords of Waar actually has a brain at work. As we take our journey, we get to consider whether courtly love is good for anything when the majority of the people is oppressed (or people with guns are shooting at you) and whether omnipotent rulers are ever a good thing, even when benignly inclined. In a sense, it all comes down to a simple question. Should the people be allowed to make their own mistakes or should an unaccountable elite group make the mistakes for them? The answer is fun to read.

For a review of the other Jane Carver book, see Jane Carver of Waar.

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

Eclipse Online

October 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Prejudice is a terrible burden to live with when the world is changing, which makes the subject of this post somewhat more ironic than usual. As one of the more obsessional book collectors, I’ve grown up and persisted through the decades surrounded by physical books. I still have almost all the books and some of the comics of my childhood and teen years — an example of sentimentality triumphing over common sense. But the bulk of the collection has been sold off. It was a painful sacrifice, but the alternative was even more painful. In fact, I’ll be saying goodbye to the more recent acquisitions soon — probably early in the New Year. Such are the penalties of advancing age and changes in circumstances.

In the midst of all this upheaval, I’ve been watching the technology of book production and content distribution evolve. I do my best to maintain neutrality, trying not to judge the merits of the new devices used for reading. Indeed, I’ve been induced to dip an experimental toe into the dark side. The fact my preferences run strongly against reading text digitally has not stood in the way of my self-appointed role as a reviewer. All too often, the book for review is made available to me in electronic format. I grit my teeth, download to my Mac and scan the screen. Old dog, new tricks and similar idioms leap to mind. Against this background, I note the arrival of Eclipse Online. The anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan have been events to write into diaries, always hoping for, nay, expecting interesting results. Now we learn there are to be no more. The editor is moving with the times and transferring his endeavours online under the umbrella of Night Shade Books. All of which is explained in the first editorial which, in turn, signals the publication of the first story, “The Contrary Gardener” by Christopher Rowe, which you can read here.

The irony I referred to flows from the nature of this first story which is rather cunningly apposite. Imagine a world in which a command economy dictates to the bean or corn cob exactly how much food or other fungibles shall be produced. Waste is not to be tolerated. Efficiency is everything. Although the discipline of the short story prevents any significant detail in the context, it’s also probably reasonable to assume a one-child policy or something equally draconian given that automation has been allowed to take over so many of the “ordinary” jobs like driving the buses. In such a world, overpopulation and unemployment would be a dangerously unstable combination. The point of the story is therefore for our heroine to find balance and harmony. Without being preachy, the author shows us that no-one would be better qualified to make such decisions than a master gardner. We’re concerned with the mechanics of production, nurturing new life and finding a way for it to prosper so it can grow up strong. Sometimes hard decisions and sacrifices have to be made. Indeed, a dramatic end of a lifetime’s work may be required. Or, perhaps, the ending of one way of life may be an opening to something new and different. After all, change is not inherently bad. In the right spirit, it can be the harbinger of good outcomes so long as adaptation to the new circumstances is willing.

So while my belief in printed media will remain strong, the presence of Jonathan Strahan at the helm of Eclipse Online will probably mean the new stories will find their way into my reading schedule. Insert your own idioms about spotted predatory animals at this point.

For reviews of three of the four Eclipse anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan, see:
Eclipse Two
Eclipse Three
Eclipse Four

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2012) demonstrates the art of the editor in balancing the simple against the complicated, the visceral against the thoughtful. As anthologies go, this is completely eclectic. There’s no detectable common denominator except for the tried and trusted “good writing” and “sheer inventiveness”.

“The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King is the work of a consummate professional. It’s obvious from the outset what will happen but, when it does, it brings a round of applause. How can you not admire the technique as the storm rages outside, the generator flickers and the man with a dickey heart does his thing? It’s magnificent melodramatic hokum and all the better for it. Indeed, it’s the inevitability of the ending that spices the horror and makes it so deliciously cruel. “Stay” by Leah Bobet is a particularly pleasing Wendigo story set out in one of these desolate towns where winter snow and ice forces a strong sense of community where everyone looks out for everyone else. To take advantage of this protectiveness, all you have to do is stay. “The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick is a tensely exciting humans hunted story. From my school days, I recall reading about terminal moraines and this certainly meets the definitional requirements as a predatory burrowing creature threatens a couple trying to decide whether their marriage is worth saving. “Blackwood’s Baby” by Laird Barron is a rather beautiful story on several levels. It works well as a piece of period writing, recreating the times when men would disappear into trackless forests to hunt, telling each other stories of their exploits around campfires. It also nicely captures class and national prejudices as this disparate band move further from the beaten track. It has the tense excitement of the hunt itself and, of course, there’s the central mystery of exactly what they are tracking. “Looker” by David Nickle is a very well executed variation on an old idea, nicely carrying through the suspense until the literal catches up with the metaphorical. In Parliamentary terms, when all lean forward to hear the result, the Speaker announces, “The ayes have it!”

Ellen Datlow continues to dominate the editorial world

“The Show” by Priya Sharma plays nicely with the current vogue for reality television shows exploring paranormal phenomena. With actual injuries sustained and the police involved, this episode would become one of those all-time classics with fascinating consequences for all involved. “Mullberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings and is a very elegant rerunning of stories like the Punktown series by Jeffrey Thomas, describing the commercial exploitation of aliens as food or the source of drugs. This time, the trope is played as an exploitation of an indigenous people with a delightfully casual piece of surgery performed on a live source for our edification. “Roots and All” by Brian Hodge is a wonderfully evocative piece of writing. Although it contains a supernatural creature and a murder, it’s really a story about love and sacrifice, about the need for balance in all things as we fight for what we believe in and take responsibility for our own actions.

“Final Girl Theory” by A C Wise is pleasingly inferential, playing a metafictional game as our obsessive movie buff catches sight of the leading lady from a cult horror film and follows her home. The questions, of course, are whether anything shown in the original film was real and, if so, whether that means there’s any kind of threat to him now. “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn demonstrates that, sometimes, relying on a map is not enough. Sometimes you have to throw the map away and just rely on your instincts to get where you really want to go, right into the heart of everything. “Dermot” by Simon Bestwick shows that we’re in the modern age. In earlier times, Faust made a pact with the Devil. Today’s police force manages an exchange of value with Dermot even though people lose their souls in the process. “Black Feathers” by Alison Littlewood is a story that plays with the idea of transformation. This time it should have been of a child into a man but, on the way, something got left out. It’s always strange to see not only how protective older children can be, but also how often the younger ones decline to grow up as their elders intend. “The Final Verse” by Chet Williamson is a marvellous piece of country lore coming to us through the agency of bluegrass music — just another form of oral history, passed down through the generations and speaking truth to us if only we have the wit to understand the lyrics. This time, a folk music historian finds the holy grail, the last verse of an all-time classic. Except it means what it says and that’s a little unfortunate for him.

“In the Absence of Murdoch” by Terry Lamsley (first published in House of Fear). When I read this back in January, I said, “This should be a contender for an award for best short story of the year.” My opinion has not changed. “You Become the Neighborhood” by Glen Hirshberg is a genuinely strange recounting of events as a mother tells her now grown-up daughter what it was that made her just a little less than sane. Were it not the for confirmation of a neighbour, the daughter might dismiss this account as the ravings of a distressed mind. “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronus” by John Langan (first published in Supernatural Noir) works rather better in this context, i.e. as a pure supernatural tale rather than as a supposed to fit into a “noir” themed anthology. “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska makes you wonder just what you might give up if your life was on the line. Finally, “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” by Peter Straub takes us on a meditative voyage where everything is pared back to its essentials, until there’s nothing left except for the possibility of love and the final desire to experience a swim in the river of life.

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four is a sensationally good anthology yet I have two entirely redundant thoughts. At the beginning, Ellen Datlow says, “The writers live in the United States, Australia, England, The Netherlands, and Canada.” The eiusdem generis rule of interpretation says you should always list things of the same status. All but England are sovereign nation states. England is a “province” of Great Britain, i.e. not even a unified law area which, technically speaking, would make it a “state” — for domicile purposes the “state” is now formally “England and Wales”. Secondly, the copyright acknowledgements are out of sequence suggesting that, at some point, “Dermot” was intended as the penultimate story.

 

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

Zendegi by Greg Egan

September 7, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s a curious coincidence that this book opens with a problem I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Being one of the dinosaurs, I’m still hoarding my collection of singles and LPs accumulated over the early years. I copied the 78s to tape many moons ago but I worry about how long the tapes will remain playable. Like Martin Seymour in Zendegi by Greg Egan (Night Shade Books, 2010), I dream of digitising all the recordings but find myself lacking the will. My wife has little interest and will not shed many tears if the original recordings are put on to the funeral pyre when my body is finally sent on its way. She’s not a Hindu and, therefore, would not consider sati (or suthi) an appropriate way of celebrating my death. But relieving herself of the option of replaying some of the hits from the 1950s might give her peace in her remaining years.

Anyway, Martin discovers that, unless you carefully check the sound levels on all the records to be transferred to the computer, it’s very easy to end up with wave shaping, i.e. distorted sound. Being something of a perfectionist, that would mean I could not listen to any of the affected tracks. Because he’s pressed for time, Martin makes the discovery after he has disposed of the originals. This loss makes him sad. But, in a more serious way, it also foreshadows the problems explored in this book. It all starts with the efforts of Nasim Golestani to map the part of a finch’s brain that decides what song to sing. She eventually creates a computer model that replicates bird song. It’s not clear how successful this is because it’s a bit difficult to ask real finches what they think of the tone and melody produced by the computerised version. The rest of the book then moves up to artificial intelligence experiments on replicating human abilities. Not unnaturally, there are some rich people who think it would be just dandy to have themselves uploaded and so achieve immortality.

Greg Egan keeps this real in his consistent rejection of the notion it would be possible to make a recording of anyone’s brain waves and so reproduce the human being. The best his scientists can manage is the replication of physical skills in avatars. Zendegi is a gaming platform and the owners make a lot of money out of people wanting to play football and other sports alongside or against their favourite players. Even inducing natural language abilities is fraught with difficulty because, like the bird song, computers have no understanding of how and why each individual note is significant. So avatars can be given access to comprehensive vocabularies but, even with multiple brain scans taken over months, there’s no consistency in the avatar’s performance as the target human. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to “clone” a human personality by digitising his or her brain waves.

This is not to say that avatars could not undertake routine tasks and so displace the need for human labour. For example, it might be possible to build systems sophisticated enough to replace call centre staff or to perform other tasks not relying on face-to-face contact with real people. In a sense, this is simply extending the displacement of the thousands of administrative and secretarial staff in the management of any business. With software able to take dictation from bosses who refuse to learn how to type, there’s no longer a need for shorthand and typing skills sitting expensively in another office, nor for the clerks who file all the paper copies of correspondence generated, nor for the filing cabinets thereby closing down industrial production and terminating further jobs. All forms of automation seriously limit the need for human workers. Machines are cheaper and, once they have learned the jobs, make fewer mistakes. So, in all this continuing debate about the extent to which real world societies should allow the development of automated systems, Greg Egan is asking and answering some relevant questions.

However, I find it strange he should place most of the action in a near-future Iran. Although it’s certainly relevant to consider whether, in any sense, machines might capture souls, the political backstory to this novel simply gives us a thriller scenario and does not significantly advance the science fiction element. I’m not convinced the Islamic reaction to the phenomenon of avatars in a gaming environment is constructive in advancing the plot. The reaction of the Christians to the Zendegi project and another US-based attempt to create a massive AI capable of running human government is somewhat predictable and not given much space for development. Indeed, the whole tenor of the book is less science fictional than I expected. The first third is more or less a straight thriller about journalism, and the latter two-thirds is the increasingly sentimental story of Martin and his son. Although the two parts of the book do tie together in the relationship between Martin and Omar — initially a neighbour who gets involved in helping Martin get the news — Martin is somewhat self-absorbed as a person and fails to understand the significance of the relationship. He sees surface reality and is not particularly good in assessing the person underneath. As an early incident shows, you can dress up a man in women’s clothing but this does not convert the man into a woman. Gender identity is based on the whole package of the personality, the physical behaviour and the context. Similarly, you can capture features of human behaviour in avatars on Zandegi, but this does not make them human.

So Zendegi is a sentimental journey through life made by a two slightly inadequate people. Neither Martin nor Nasim are particularly successful as humans although they do manage to get things done. They work on a project together and it fails. I think that sums it all up really. The book is good in part but unsatisfying because it fails to really engage with the social and political implications of the work being done. We see it but there’s not enough meaningful discussion of it. The real questions are whether something approximating human is better than nothing and, if what you create is a kind of Frankenstein monster, would it be moral and legal to kill it by wiping it from the server?

For another review of a book by Greg Egan see The Clockwork Rocket.

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan, Book 1 in the Orthogonal series (Night Shade Books, 2011), has proved to be an experiment too far for me. Over the years, I’ve read and, for the most part, enjoyed Greg Egan’s short stories. When I mentioned his name, however, there were always faintly worried expressions from those who know me. I never asked why. They might tell me I was looking even closer to death than usual. So I was left with an optimistic view that here was a hard-SF writer who actually produced accessible fiction, albeit only in the short form. For the record, I need to interject a small historical note. I gave up on physics rather more than fifty years ago. I found electricity experiments like the wheatstone bridge alarming — even rewiring a plug was challenging for me — and the suggestion I might apply anything more than basic addition and subtraction from the maths realm was enough to induce intellectual anaphylactic shock. Put simply, top-class boffins had only just invented the transistor when this old dog was trying to recreate Pepper’s Ghost, so the notion of anything actually amounting to cutting-edge physics was, and remains, completely alien to me.

At this point, it’s perhaps convenient to show the amount of background work Greg Egan has done to create this universe: Orthogonal Background Notes. It would be alright if it was written in Greek. I was good at Greek at school. But seeing the detailed work invested before actually sitting down to write the story is one of the most dispiriting things it has been my misfortune to encounter. My long-suffering friends were right. This type of book is not for me. Anyone who has to insert graphics into the text to explain what’s going on has lost the battle for my attention. If it can’t clearly be expressed in words anyone of ordinary intelligence can understand, nothing diagrammatic is going to help. By my standards, it’s not proper fiction.

So, here we have a strange bunch of aliens. I admit complete ignorance as to the nature their world. All I can say about it with any degree of certainty is that it does appear to go round a sun. As to the locals, they have a distinctive process of reproduction which depends on either the gynogenesis or parthenogenesis of the females. This leaves single dads with the responsibility of bring up the twins or quads. It’s very unusual for a solo or a triple to be produced. Needless to say, this has produced an extreme patriarchalism with women not only expected to be generally subservient, but “wives” treated as property and, as runaways, subject to forcible return to their “husbands” by enthusiastic male police officers. It’s all magnificently Victorian in the Regina v Jackson sense. This was a case in 1891 in which a husband kidnapped his wife who had refused to live with him and forcibly detained her in the “matrimonial home”. The Court of Queen’s Bench refused habeas corpus to free her, confirming a husband, “. . .had a right to the custody of his wife unless he uses it for some improper purpose. . .” This was the last time habeas corpus was refused as the Court of Appeal changed the law to assert a wife’s right to personal freedom. One small step towards equality.

Anyway, in this fictional society, our heroine, Yalda, is a solo born into a remote farming community. But she proves to have a big brain to go with the outsize body and is soon moving up through the academic ranks. On the way, she encounters the usual backbiting from jealous peers and intimidated lecturing staff. This is aggravated by her status as a female solo. To keep her from spontaneously producing two or four children and therefore ceasing to be a thorn in the sides on all those who would banish her from their equivalent of the ivory (red) towers, she takes a “contraceptive”. Thus fortified, she proceeds to identify a possible threat to her world. In fact, she has time to work out the science of it while lying in a jail cell for assaulting the son of someone politically powerful. Now there’s a literal and metaphorical division of labour required. A close friend divides leaving the question of who will assume responsibility for the children’s upbringing. And then there’s the need to convince the authorities it will be necessary to produce a “rocket” to take some people away from, and then back to, wherever it is they are. Somehow this will ensure life can continue. In the midst of what follows as our little band of doomsayers tries to rally public support, is some discussion of temporal causality which I more or less followed, but all this physics, particularly when it gets into what I take to be relativity, is just beyond me. We have the usual attempted sabotage as we come up to the launch and then the ethical problem of what to do with the misguided saboteur. All this is predictable as is the physical confusion when they encounter zero gravity. Growing food when the plants don’t know which way is up is a challenge.

So what this comes down to is that these people live in a place and face a threat I don’t understand. On the off chance they need to save themselves, they propose to send out a rocket. In causal terms, this may save the race by changing the future or not. I really don’t know. So if this sounds like your kind of book (with lots of explanatory charts and diagrams thrown in) you will be in your element with The Clockwork Rocket. But if, like me, you have the scientific ability of an amoeba and the attention span of a gnat, walk quietly on the other side.

Wonderfully atmospheric "rockets" from Cody Tilson

The full artwork for for jacket from Cody Tilson is spectacular.

For a review of another book by Greg Egan, see Zendegi.

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

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