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Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2014) Legends of the Duskwalker 2 follows on from Three with the young boy Wren now the Governor of Morningside. The title to the book is a spoiler in its own right because it announces that this citadel that’s stood against the Weir for a significant period of time is not going to do all that well as the pages turn. So this is a book that straddles a number of rather different genres. At its heart, this is a political thriller which examines how a self-contained group of people that has been in a stable situation should react when their autocratic leader is removed. The senior citizens who had been in a supporting role now find themselves as council members with a young boy nominally in charge. Unfortunately, one of this boy’s first instructions is to allow the people who had been living outside the city to take up residence. Worse, he has been awakening some of the Weir and expecting the city dwellers to accept these “people” as safe to live alongside them. The general rule is that people don’t respond well to change. Those who now have more obvious routes to power might be inclined to plot against the boy. Those on the streets might take it personally if outsiders start moving into accommodation next to them.

 

Secondly, this is a science fiction, post apocalypse novel. We still have absolutely no idea what precisely has gone wrong with this world but we seem to have a rump of humanity surviving in fortified cities (although, in the first book, we did meet one community surviving outside without walls) and under threat from the Weir. Now these are not simple zombie-like creatures. They retain some level of purpose and can also communicate with each other. Indeed, under certain circumstances, they are capable of co-ordinated action. There are also a small number of human mutants such as Wren who has a natural ability to interface with electronic systems and he can reawaken the human personality of a Weir. When awakened, he or she will retain the changed body and, depending on the length of time between turning and reawakening, it’s possible for the personality to return almost unchanged.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Thirdly, this is a hybrid military SF or Wild West weird. There’s a considerable amount of fighting between what’s left of the human armed forces and the Weir. The humans have some advanced weaponry, but they are relatively small in number. It’s therefore not unlike groups of white settlers, militia or US Cavalry going into the land occupied by large numbers of less well-armed Native Indians. Finally, this is a coming-of-age story as Wren and the young “friend” he has awakened adjust to circumstances around them and find themselves forced to take responsibility for what they are or may become.

 

The first novel in the series was very impressive because the main character was the titular Three who acted as the protector of, and guide for, Wren and his mother. This gave us a chase across the landscape as Three led the inexperienced boy to a place where there might be some safety. They were being pursued by a small group led by Wren’s older brother. Although not much of the world was explained, there was considerable tension in the chase and we did pick up clues about the Weir and some of the different ways in which human mutants could operate. Unfortunately, Three is killed at the end of the book which leaves Wren as the primary protagonist in this book. This is unfortunate because, frankly, he’s not that interesting most of the time. We’re waiting for him to grow into his mutant powers. So far, he’s just dabbling and lacks the self-confidence to really get things done. So although he can occasionally say relevant and quite powerful things in the political arena, he’s essentially dependent on his mother for political decision-making, and the cast of bodyguards to keep him alive. When things get too hot inside Morningside, they take off into the desert and this leads to some quite repetitive chase and fighting sequences. If the editorial staff had been prepared to cut down the length by at least ten percent, this would have been a better book. As it is, the book starts off not unpromisingly, but lacks an adult point of view to deal with the political situation. It’s only as we approach the end that there’s more emotional investment in the characters and we get into the conflict that will leave us ready for the next book in the series. This leads to the general conclusion that even though this improves towards the end, Morningside Falls is significantly less successful than the first in the series.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Three.

 

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo

March 7, 2014 2 comments

To Sail a Darkling Sea

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo (Baen, 2014) is the second in the Black Tide Rising series following on Under a Graveyard Sky and features survival after a zombie plague has overrun the land. In military terms that just leaves isolated bases in the US, Russia and China, and a reasonable number of people in submarines. Obviously, once the plague hit, the rich and more enterprising took off on small boats. Others were already at sea on cruise liners. What’s now called the Wolf Squadron is now slowly growing itself by finding boats, clearing the zombies and rescuing the few survivors who could shut themselves away with enough food and water to survive.

 

I’m obliged to start this review with the usual disclaimer that I know absolutely nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various types of guns and rifles discussed in the pages of this or any other military book. Those that have this interest will no doubt be fascinated by the detailed evaluation of stopping power and generally utility. I skipped through these passages as part of the price to be paid to get on with the story.

 

I should also note the rather odd view of gender displayed as the story unwinds. Faith and Sophia, the two Wolf daughters are both shown as ruthless killers of the zombies. Having set up two of the main point of view characters as female, it’s a little depressing to have another set of scenes which trap five men and one woman in a compartment, leaving her in the role of comfort woman. Alarmingly, she gets to enjoy the sex including threesomes. It’s a sad commentary of the five men that they have no self-control and believe the best way of passing the time while waiting for rescue is to persuade the only female that sex is wonderful (as often as they want it, of course).

John Ringo

John Ringo

 

There’s also an interesting discussion of the psychology of leadership and the necessity for ranks with a defined disciplinary code. This becomes a essential matter to settle because the only group functioning on the surface is the Wolf Squadron and it’s civilian. So we have the few military survivors hiding in bunkers on land and lots of submarines who don’t dare undog their hatches near anyone even vaguely human in case they contract the zombie-causing virus. The rump survivors of the military must therefore fit these “people” into a command hierarchy so that, as and when the scientists in the Wolf Squadron produce more of the vaccine and can protect the crews of the submarines, everyone will know how to relate to each other and co-ordinate their efforts to retake the land. Less successful is the discussion of whether the mechanism for the Wolf Squadron’s cohesion is a form of communism. Regrettably, when you measure the US in international terms, even its supposed left-wing liberals are woefully right wing when compared to almost all other countries. So when a US author of military SF, adapted in this case to cover a zombie apocalypse, starts talking about whether the organisational dynamic is communist, you know to suppress mirth.

 

So is there anything to like about this book? Well, for all the facile politics, the endless discussion of weaponry and overemphasis on military jargon, the underlying story is actually quite interesting even though it does get somewhat repetitive. The marines led by Shewolf are shown clearing boats and ships of varying size. They then move on to land in the Canary Islands. Knowing they will need to move to safer waters as the winter storm season approaches, they require more transport for the increasing number of people they have been rescuing. The Canaries are convenient because there are a number of cruise ships there, together with a significant number of motor yachts and zodiac-style power boats. The plan is to put together a flotilla capable of wintering successfully and then moving over to Guantanamo where they hope to find the facilities to resume manufacture of the vaccine. All this has virtue in thoughtful plotting terms. Overlook the extermination of zombies on an industrial scale when they can be confronted in relatively controlled situations, and the spirit of the book does maintain a reasonable momentum. I suppose the fans of military SF will think this wonderful. As it is, I rate To Sail a Darkling Sea as not too unbearable.

 

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

 

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.

Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead

October 18, 2013 1 comment

US-Cover-LOTP-500x806

For some inexplicable reason probably connected with the increasingly rapid death of brain cells, this book reminded me of several works from the 1950s. I start with Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the better alien invasion films I paid to see when it first came out in 1956. These pesky creatures land in their ships and so long as they stay inside their force fields, they are invulnerable to our primitive weapons, until. . . As a short story, I always liked William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), while Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953) has a slightly more peaceful, but nevertheless disruptive, invasion. As to the alien’s motive for the assault on our green and pleasant lands, I offer The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch and Of Men and Monsters (1968) by WIlliam Tenn. I suppose these works have stuck in my memory as yardsticks against which to measure the level of intelligence in the vast number of alien invasion plots encountered since.

All of which brings me to Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris, 2013). This plot depends on several overlapping ideas. The aliens have invaded and the devastation produces a post-apocalyptic situation in which survivors struggle to survive in a devastated environment. In this thread, Kylie and her man (he’s impotent thanks to the residual poison in the environment, so he’s not her lover) live in what’s left of Oakland. In this thread, it’s 2013, and her nemesis is a mentally unstable religious fanatic who has plans for her which he claims will save Earth. There’s one anomaly in the devastated landscape. It’s called the Seattle Preservation Dome. As in Groundhog Day (1993), this is a city caught in a time loop — it’s always the fifth of October. The questions, of course, are how this anomaly came into being and what sustains it as Ian Palmer and his friend, Zack, iterate through marginally different versions of the same time period.

Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead

The good news it that the post-apocalypse element works well as Kylie is forced to leave Oakland and ends up at a survivor-inspired project to bring down the dome. These humans have both a theory as to what the dome is and a fighter jet which they believe can fly inside. The less good news is that, despite the valiant attempts of Zack to remind Ian they are in a time loop, our hero in this narrative thread is stubborn. Admittedly, it does sound a little nutty to suggest everyone is stuck in time, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. But Ian does take a long time to admit the truth of his situation. This means we have to read through the same day quite a few times before things grow more exciting.

As our example to compare, the short story by William Tenn is nearest in spirit, i.e. the cause of Earth’s destruction is similar. The essential difference lies in the introduction of the time loop which, in a Matrix kind of way, offers some degree of preservation for those inside the dome. As a plot, this is all rather elegant even though the first step for exiting the loop (the first time) is not completely voluntary. I would have been more impressed if the relevant individuals had come up with this idea and then had to trigger the major change. The uncertainty in whether it will work would have produced real tension. I was also slightly disconcerted that, as written, the plot has Kylie disappear from the action for quite a long time as we move through the final third of the book. Since their relationship has been set up as love-at-first-sight between two humans who share a certain characteristic, I’m not sure I approve of this way of finishing the book. I understand the author’s choice. He’s free to write the book he wants. But if the final answer is going to depend on the strength of their romance, the demonstration of their love is long time coming.

So as written, Life on the Preservation starts off in a way confirming the strength of Jack Skillingstead’s craft. There’s real cleverness in the different ways in which the fifth of October are presented. Once the ultimate alien threat kicks in, the pace picks up and there’s considerable excitement. This just leaves us with the ending which is slightly muted. I suppose it’s appropriate for there to be an absence of triumphalism. That would be “unrealistic” in this context. The best we can hope for as an outcome is a marginal rebalancing of forces. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of persistence. As George R Stewart tells us, for now Earth Abides.

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

Three by Jay Posey

Three-144dpi

The word “apocalypse” is rather interesting. In religious contexts, it’s taken to refer to a revelation, a transmission of understanding. Hence, in the New Testament, it’s the knowledge of the way in which good can finally triumph over evil and so produce what’s now called the End of Days. In secular terms, it’s become associated with any catastrophe that causes a more or less complete extinction of life on Earth. As a science fiction trope, post-apocalypse stories deal with the survivors doing their best to survive in a hostile or non-supportive environment. Frankly, the idea has been rather “done to death” by the arrival of zombies which, in various formats, have been trying to eat their way through humanity for the last fifty years or so — George A Romero has a lot to answer for.

 

Because the idea of the apocalypse has grown stale, the more creative have been striving to produce variations on the theme to maintain our interest. The traditional approach is to introduce your pack of people, then stage the disaster, and show how these brave few manage to survive. There are two strategies to improve interest. The first is to introduce some level of mystery as to what exactly went wrong or who was responsible. So we may start off before and see the disaster occur, only to be left to answer the whodunnit and why questions. Or we can begin in medias res and be left trying to work out exactly what form the disaster took. Obviously, the survivors know what happened and so have no need to talk about it. They are, however, surrounded by evidence of what went wrong and we are left to piece it together as the book proceeds. The other strategy is not to worry too much about the nature of the disaster but rather to focus on the characters of the survivors. If readers or viewers can empathise with the people, they can ride the adventure vicariously as it unwinds.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Three by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2013) Legends of the Duskwalker, is not quite breaking new ground by combining both strategies. There has been a disaster of some kind, but it’s not at all obvious what form it took. We meet Three who, against his better judgement, assumes the responsibility for protecting Cass and her son, Wren. Together they move across the remnants of a sophisticated urban environment where some of the technology still works. One of the more pleasing aspects of this journey is the lack of infodumps. There’s actually some very clever world-building on display here but you have to read the text to absorb it. This makes the prose rather more dense than usual. That said, it’s well worth the effort to read it. Indeed, the taciturn nature of the titular character Three makes analysis of the text the only way to work out what’s going on. If you’re not prepared to invest the effort, you should probably pass on this. But if you enjoy piecing the big picture together as this peripatetic narrative unwinds, this is one of the best examples of the phenomenon I’ve read during the last ten years.

 

We start off in one nameless urban environment and slowly work our way through the deserted landscape of empty buildings. From time to time, we lodge in safe houses or come to fortified areas that can be kept clear of the Weir — quite the most exciting variation on the zombie concept for years. Then it’s across the Strand — a positive wound on the surface of the Earth caused during the catastrophe, and into a different city run by a rather interesting Governor. Who everyone is and how they are related to everyone is fascinating. Assuming humans as a species are adaptive, it’s easy to see how we might move from modifying through genetic manipulation to the induced characteristics becoming inheritable. I will say no more but, as an analogy, think of the seminal film, Forbidden Planet directed by Fred Wilcox, but updated to match modern technology trends. Three is one of the best SF novels of the year so far.

 

The pleasingly atmospheric cover art is by Steven Meyer-Rassow.

 

For a review of the next in the series, see Morningside Fall.

 

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

 

The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis

The Best of Connie WIllis by Connie WIllis

Welcome to The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis (Del Rey, 2013). To say this author is something of a phenomenon is an understatement. After a rather dispiriting start to her writing career mentioned in the afterword to the first of these stories, she’s contrived to win more major awards than anyone else in the science fiction field. This is a collection of her award-winning shorter fiction. Once you say that it gets very difficult to suggest any one of these pieces is less than excellent. They have all won at least one major award. However, tastes change and, since this collection spans thirty years of output, it’s perhaps the right time to look back with modern sensibilities to the fore of the brain. By way of introduction, I should explain all the stories are rooted in relationships, usually families, but also show concern over the question of romance and how relationships come into being and end. Consequently, although the explicit content may be science fiction or fantasy, the subtext is always more intimate.

“A Letter from the Clearys” (Nebula Award 1983 for short story) is a post-apocalyptic story of a family that, by accident, survived a nuclear war. It’s typically small-scale with only a few characters and, without sentimentality, it deals with the paranoia and hopelessness of the survivors. In a real sense, you wonder why they bother to keep going when there’s very little chance of being able to produce new life. It’s still a very human story and stands up well to the passage of time. “At the Rialto” (Nebula Award 1990 for novelette) is a story of chaos at a hotel hosting multiple conventions and, as a piece of humorous writing, some of the jokes continue to be amusing. The rest are intellectually satisfying because I remember smiling happily at them when I first read this. As to content, our heroine discovers that, no matter how much conscious effort is invested in the decision-making process, the outcome is usually the same, particularly if the person serving you is only working part-time to pay for her organic breathing course. The pay-off is still good value but I’m tempted to say it repeats itself and runs a little too long.

“Death on the Nile” (Hugo Award 1994 for short story) is a nicely elegant way of talking about death. It’s a sad fact we’ve become resistant to thinking about dying and what might happen afterwards. Some live in denial with their atheism, others assume rigidity of belief that the only binary outcomes are Heaven or Hell, plus their own sanctimonious certainty they’ll be going to the “right” place. This works well as a kind of fantasy with a faintly horrific overlay as uncertainty overtakes our heroine when the self-appointed guide drops out of sight. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” (Hugo Award 1997 for short story) remains quite simply wonderful. The idea H G Well’s Martians might have landed with such force in the cemetery where Emily Dickinson was buried that they woke her up is, in itself, a delight. The explanation of what then happened is deduced from fire-damaged fragments of poetry discovered some years later. “Fire Watch” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1983 for novelette) is a story about living with the threat of death. Sent back in time to the London of the Blitz, our misfit historian who misunderstands so much of what surrounds him, must confront the possibility of his own death or the deaths of those around him, as they fight to save St Paul’s from destruction. It’s an odd reflection on the time this novelette was written that it should seem plausible a group of Communists would destroy the cathedral in 2016. It’s also interesting our historian should be rewarded for failing to return with empirical data simply because he’s learned, albeit belatedly, that people matter more than facts. Somehow that generates a dissonance between the great sense of London in 1940 created by the author, and such a lack of coherent detail about the future education system that seems to send people back in time without proper preparation.

Connie Willis collects another award

Connie Willis collects another award

“Inside Job” (Hugo Award 2006 for novella) is one of these standout stories that relies on scepticism to prove H L Mencken can’t come back from the dead to debunk spiritualists and other con artists who prey on the gullible. That makes the entire story a nice paradox and a commentary on how unlikely it is that anyone can ever overcome their mutual distrust to admit their love. “Even the Queen” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1993 for short story) applies a faintly humorous veneer to a “woman”s issue”. If the relevant technology could be developed to switch off menstruation, would women want it? As a man, I’ve always assumed women really wanted all that discomfort and pain, and the osteoporosis following the menopause, and would rebel at the idea of being free from reproductive inconvenience (obviously, for the perpetuation of the species, women should be able to turn the switch back on and produce babies as and when they want). Yet in this future, the natural women’s group who call themselves the Cyclists are considered a dangerous fringe cult. It’s all pleasingly thought-provoking.

“The Winds of Marble Arch” (Hugo Award 2000 for novella) is rather an odd story to have won an award. It concerns itself with death, both physical with possible supernatural outcomes, and metaphorical in the ending of relationships. There’s a conscious parallelism as if in a comedy of manners where social misunderstandings are mirrored in subjective phenomena. To my taste it takes too long to get to a faux romantic ending. “All Seated on the Ground” (Hugo Award 2008 for novella) is a genuinely pleasing idea. Rather than have aliens land and instantly attack, this sextet emerge from their spacecraft and look like disapproving Aunts. It takes a co-ordinated effort to establish the basis of communication and, in so doing, we learn a lot about the difference between self-important bureaucrats, radical preachers, and humble people who just want to earn the approval of the Aunts. There’s also a recital of the ways in which the words of carols and some hymns might encourage listeners to various acts of violence. Although the message is hopeful, I think the idea a thin joke spun out too long. “The Last of the Winnebagos” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1989 for novella) deals with a different future from the one we have. Here’s an America with acute water shortages and the loss of many species of animal including dogs. The core of the story revolves around “guilt”. The hero’s own dog was killed by a young girl. He tracks her down fifteen years later and, under pressure from an aggressive Society tasked with protecting what’s left of the wildlife, an accommodation emerges which allows the innocent to avoid retribution. There’s also a certain irony in the development of a different type of camera, the eisenstadt. If our hero, as a photojournalist, had had this camera earlier, his dog might still be alive. As it is, there are only old photographs to remind people of what they have lost.

For me Connie Willis lacks a certain degree of consistency. She has a flair for capturing the essence of human beings and their relationships. All the stories showcased here demonstrate this quality. But she can get caught up in the moment and go on slightly too long so the shorter stories are better. The collection rounds off with three of her speeches which are new to me and interesting. Overall, this is a perfect way to see an author at her best.

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

Immobility by Brian Evenson

June 25, 2012 4 comments

It happens every now again that I feel the urge to slip back into the realms of academic discourse and try vaguely to say something intelligent about the construction of a narrative. This time I’m seduced into walking this rocky road after reading Immobility by Brian Evenson (Tor, 2012). In other circumstances, I might mutter darkly about this being a post-apocalyptic novel, one of these science fiction efforts that places us in a world left in ruins by the unrestricted detonation of nuclear bombs. What is not physically demolished, is substantially extinguished by the radiation. At a stroke, this precipitates an almost complete collapse of civilisation as we know it and, in the best sense of the word, we’re depressed that humanity should have been so cavalier with its own existence. Yet, of course, there are survivors. Such novels would be impossible without a few rats left to crawl out of the rubble. So what makes this book different?

 

Well, here we go with more thoughts about our old friend, the unreliable narrator. Our point of view is a man just being revived from suspended animation. He finds himself unable to remember anything about himself, let alone the circumstances which led to his storage. As his eyes open, it’s therefore for us to view this world as a tabula rasa. We have no way of knowing its history nor who these people are. Literally, we see everything as if for the first time. Although our hero can report his surface interpretation of what he experiences, it’s entirely possible he’s misinterpreting the data. At this point, I need to make a distinction. Because of his lack of knowledge, the guesses he makes could be the best he can make on the basis of the evidence. Hence, some could be correct. Or everything he comes to believe could just be wrong.

Brian Evenson as seen by his wife

 

Let’s take a simple early question. When he recovers some upper-body mobility, our hero’s first instinct is to attack the technician who revived him. He has no idea why he should feel so aggressive. Later, when discussing the situation with Rasmus, the leader of this community, he’s told he was a kind of fixer. A man who would carry out difficult tasks without caring too much about the morality of the means. As someone with a killer’s reflexes, coming out of storage in a confused state, he might mistakenly consider the technician a threat and lash out in self-defence. Rasmus reassures him that he should not feel guilty about the attack. That’s actually his virtue and the reason for his revival. The community needs his fighting reflexes. And the task? Well, they need him to go and recover some stolen property.

 

Unreliability in this instance stems from his complete lack of memory as to who he is or what his moral values are. When asked to judge the truthfulness of those he meets, he has no real basis on which to assess credibility. Perhaps Rasmus is lying but, if so, what would his motives be? Since we as readers know no more than our hero has told us, we’re also rudderless. Although we might have genre expectations about the way narratives of this kind would normally develop, all we can do is observe and reserve judgement until more information is forthcoming. The only comfort we can draw is that our hero is aware of the gaps in his memory and so appreciates his own unreliability. From this, you will understand this is a very clever piece of writing. It deliberately plays with our genre expectations, challenging us to work out what’s actually going on. Except, of course, even that could be a trap. For all we know, our hero has not actually woken up and is simply dreaming all this.

 

For once, I’m not going to say very much more about the way the story develops. All that it’s necessary to do is explain the title. As he wakes, it rapidly becomes apparent that our hero is paralysed from the waist down. His upper body is very strong but, as Rasmus sadly explains, he’s the victim of a disease that will ultimately cause him to lose all his mobility. The only way in which he can move around is literally by being carried. When he sets off on his mission, two large individuals take it in turn to act as beasts of burden. He has a small window of opportunity to recover the stolen property and then get back before the paralysis completely overcomes him. He will then be put back into storage until a cure has been developed.

 

Immobility is very impressive. It’s beautifully written and, most importantly, it nicely reinvents many of the standard tropes, often inverting expectations. I admit to being surprised by the revelations that come at the end. With decades of reading experience in my locker, that’s a neat trick for an author to pull off. I usually keep up with the story and have the situation analysed before the final few pages. Except, I chose to forget the mindset of those who greenlighted the nuclear launches. When you think about the extent of the disaster that has touched every part of this world, the attitudes of the survivors are completely understandable if not very laudable. At every level, this is a must-read, if slightly downbeat, post-apocalyptic novel.

 

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

 

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